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A sample from BITTER SEEDS by Ian Tregillis

An extraordinary and audacious debut novel – and a chilling supernatural retelling of World War II – read an excerpt of Bitter Seeds below.

PROLOGUE

23 October 1920
11 kilometers southwest of Weimar, Germany

Murder on the wind: crows and ravens wheeled beneath a heavy sky, like spots of ink splashed across a leaden canvas. They soared over leafless forests, crumbling villages, abandoned fields of barleycorn and wheat. The fields had gone to seed; village  chimneys stood dormant and cold. There would be no waste here, no food free for the taking.

And so the ravens moved on.

For years they had watched armies surge across the continent with the ebb and flow of war, waltzing to the music of empire. They had dined on the detritus of warfare, feasted on the warriors themselves. But now the dance was over, the trenches empty, the bones picked clean.

And so the ravens moved on.

They rode a wind redolent of wet leaves and the promise of a cleansing frost. There had been a time when the winds had smelled of bitter almonds and other scents engineered for a different kind of cleansing. Like an illness, the taint of war extended far from the battlefields where those toxic winds had blown.

And so the ravens moved on.

Far below, a spot of motion and color became a beacon on the still and muted landscape. A strawberry roan strained at the harness of a hay wagon. Hay meant farmers; farmers meant food. The ravens spiraled down for a closer look at this wagon and its driver.

***

The driver tapped the mare with the tip of his whip. She snorted, exhaling great gouts of steam as the wagon wheels squelched through the butterscotch mud of a rutted farm track. The driver’s breath steamed, too, in the late afternoon chill as he rubbed his hands together. He shivered. So did the children nestled in the hay behind him. Autumn had descended upon Europe with cold-hearted glee in this first full year after the Great War, threatening still leaner times ahead.

He craned his neck to glance at the children. It would do nobody any good if they succumbed to the cold before he delivered them to the orphanage.

Every bump in the road set the smallest child to coughing. The towheaded boy of five or six years had dull eyes and sunken cheeks that spoke of hunger in the belly, and a wheeze that spoke of dampness in the lungs. He shivered, hacking himself raw each time the wagon thumped over a root or stone. Tufts of hay fluttered down from where he had stuffed his threadbare woolen shirt and trousers for warmth.

The other two children clung to each other under a pile of hay, their bones distinct under hunger-taut skin. But the gypsy blood of some distant relation had infused the siblings with a hint of olive coloring that fended off the pallor that had claimed the sickly boy. The older of the pair, a gangly boy of six or seven, wrapped his arms around his sister, trying vainly to protect her from the chill. The sloe-eyed girl hardly noticed, her dark gaze never wavering from the coughing boy.

The driver turned his attention back to the road. He’d made this journey several times, and the orphans he ferried were much the same from one trip to the next. Quiet. Frightened. Sometimes they wept. But there was something different about the gypsy girl. He shivered again.

The road wove through a dark forest of oak and ash. Acorns crunched beneath the wagon wheels. Gnarled trees grasped at the sky. The boughs creaked in the wind, as though commenting upon the passage of the wagon in some ancient, inhuman language.

The driver nudged his mare into a sharp turn at a crossroads. Soon the trees thinned out and the road skirted the edge of a wide clearing. A whitewashed three-story house and a cluster of smaller buildings on the far side of the clearing suggested the country estate of a wealthy family, or perhaps a prosperous farm untouched by war. Once upon a time, the scions of a moneyed clan had  indeed taken their holidays here, but times had changed, and now this place was neither estate nor farm.

A sign suspended on two tall flagpoles arced over the crushed-gravel lane that veered for the house. In precise Gothic lettering painted upon rough-hewn birch wood, it declared that these were the grounds of the Children’s Home for Human Enlightenment.

The sign neither mentioned hope nor counseled its abandonment. But in the driver’s opinion, it should have.

Months had passed since the farm was given a new life, but the purpose of this place was unclear. Tales told of a flickering electric-blue glow in the windows at night, the pervasive whiff of ozone, muffled screams, and always – always – the loamy shit-smell of freshly turned soil. But the countless rumors did agree on one thing: Herr Doktor von Westarp paid well for healthy children.

And that was enough for the driver in these lean gray years that came tumbling from the Armistice. He had children of his own to feed at home, but the war had produced a bounty of parentless ragamuffins willing to trust anybody who promised a warm meal.

A field came into view behind the house. Row upon row of earthen mounds dotted it, tiny piles of black dirt not much larger than a sack of grain. Off in the distance a tall man in overalls heaped soil upon a new mound. Influenza, it was claimed, had ravaged the foundling home.

Ravens lined the eaves of every building, watching the workman, with inky black eyes. A few settled on the ground nearby. They picked at a mound, tugging at something under the dirt, until the workman chased them off.

The wagon creaked to a halt not far from the house. The mare snorted. The driver climbed down. He lifted the children and set them on their feet as a short balding man emerged from the house. He wore a gentleman’s tweeds under the long white coat of a tradesman, wire-rimmed spectacles, and a precisely groomed mustache.

Herr Doktor,’ said the driver.

Ja,’ said the well-dressed man. He pulled a cream-colored handkerchief from a coat pocket. It turned the color of rust as he wiped his hands clean. He nodded at the children. ‘What have you brought me this time?’

‘You’re still paying, yes?’

The doctor said nothing. He pulled the girl’s arms, testing her muscle tone and the resilience of her skin tissues. Unceremoniously and without warning he yanked up her dirtcrusted frock to cup his hand between her legs. Her brother he grabbed roughly by the jaw, pulling his mouth open to peer inside. The youngsters’ heads received the closest scrutiny. The doctor traced every contour of their skulls, muttering to himself as he did so.

Finally he looked up at the driver, still prodding and pulling at the new arrivals. ‘They look thin. Hungry.’

‘Of course they’re hungry. But they’re healthy. That’s what you want, isn’t it?’

The adults haggled. The driver saw the girl step behind the doctor to give the towheaded boy a quick shove. He stumbled in the mud. The impact unleashed another volley of coughs and spasms. He rested on all fours, spittle trailing from his lips.

The doctor broke off in midsentence, his head snapping around to watch the boy. ‘What is this? That boy is ill. Look! He’s weak.’

‘It’s the weather,’ the driver mumbled. ‘Makes everyone cough.’

‘I’ll pay you for the other two, but not this one,’ said the doctor. ‘I’m not wasting my time on him.’ He waved the workman over from the field. The tall man joined the adults and children with long loping strides.

‘This one is too ill,’ said the doctor. ‘Take him.’

The workman put his hand on the sickly child’s shoulder and led him away. They disappeared behind a shed.

Money changed hands. The driver checked his horse and wagon for the return trip, eager to be away, but he kept one eye on the girl.

‘Come,’ said the doctor, beckoning once to the siblings with a hooked finger. He turned for the house. The older boy followed.
His sister stayed behind, her eyes fixed on where the workman and sick boy had disappeared.

Clang. A sharp noise rang out from behind the shed, like the blade of a shovel hitting something hard, followed by the softer
bump-slump as of a grain sack dropping into soft earth. A storm of black wings slapped the air as a flock of ravens took for the sky.

The gypsy girl hurried to regain her brother. The corner of her mouth twisted up in a private little smile as she took his hand. The driver thought about that smile all the way home. Fewer mouths meant more food to go around.

 

23 October 1920
St. Pancras, London, England

The promise of a cleansing frost extended west, across the Channel, where the ravens of Albion felt it keenly. They knew, with the craftiness of their kind, that the easiest path to food was to steal it from others. So they circled over the city, content to leave the hard work to the scavengers below, animal and human alike.

A group of children moved through the shadows and alleys with direction and purpose, led by a boy in a blue mackintosh. The ravens followed. From their high perches along the eaves of the surrounding houses, they watched the boy in blue lead his companions to the low brick wall around a winter garden. They watched the children shimmy over the wall. And they watched the gardener watching the children through the drapes of a second-story window.

***

His name was John Stephenson, and as a captain in the nascent Royal Flying Corps, he had spent the first several years of the Great War flying over enemy territory with a camera mounted beneath his Bristol F2A. That ended with a burst of Austrian anti-aircraft fire. He crashed in No-Man’s Land. After a long, agonizing ride in a horse-drawn ambulance, he awoke in a Red
Cross field hospital, mostly intact but minus his left arm.

He’d disregarded the injury and served the Crown by staying with the Corps. Analyzing photographs required eyes and brains, not arms. By war’s end, he’d been coordinating the surveillance balloons and reconnaissance flights.

He’d spent years poring over  blurry photographs with a jeweler’s loupe, studying bird’s-eye views of trenches, troop movements, and gun emplacements. But now he watched from above while a half dozen hooligans uprooted the winter rye. He would have flown downstairs and knocked their skulls together, but for the boy in the blue mackintosh. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old, but there he was, excoriating the others to respect Stephenson’s property even as they ransacked his garden.

Odd little duckling, that one.

This wasn’t vandalism at work. It was hunger. But the rye was little more than a ground cover for keeping out winter-hardy weeds. And the beets and carrots hadn’t been in the ground long. The scavenging turned ugly.

A girl rooting through the deepest corner of the garden discovered a tomato excluded from the autumn crop because it had fallen and bruised. She beamed at the shriveled half-white mass. The largest boy in the group, a little monster with beady pig-eyes, grabbed her arm with both hands.

‘Give it,’ he said, wrenching her skin as though wringing out a towel.

She cried out, but didn’t let go of her treasure. The other children watched, transfixed in the midst of looting.

‘Give it,’ repeated the bully. The girl whimpered.

The boy in blue stepped forward. ‘Sod off,’ he said. ‘Let her go.’

‘Make me.’

The boy wasn’t small, per se, but the bully was much larger. If they tussled, the outcome was inevitable.

The others watched with silent anticipation. The girl cried. Ravens called for blood.

‘Fine.’ The boy rummaged in the soil along the wall behind a row of winter rye. Several moments passed. ‘Here,’ he said, regaining his feet. One hand he kept behind his back, but with the other he offered another tomato left over from the autumn crop. It was little more than a bag of mush inside a tough papery skin. Probably a worthy find by the standards of these children. ‘You can have this one if you let her alone.’

The bully held out one hand, but didn’t release the sniffling girl. A reddish wheal circled her forearm where he’d twisted the flesh. He wiggled his fingers. ‘Give it.’

‘All right,’ said the smaller boy. Then he lobbed the food high overhead.

The bully pushed the girl away and craned his head back, intent on catching his prize.

The first stone caught him in the throat. The second thunked against his ear as he sprawled backwards. He was down and crying before the tomato splattered in the dirt.

The smaller boy had excellent aim. He’d ended the fight before it began.

Bloody hell.

Stephenson expected the thrower to jump the bully, to press the advantage. He’d seen it in the war, the way months of hard living could alloy hunger with fear and anger, making natural the most beastly behavior. But instead the boy turned his back on the bully to check on the girl. The matter, in his mind, was settled.

Not so for the bully. Lying in the dirt, face streaked with tears and snot, he watched the thrower with something shapeless and dark churning in his eyes.

Stephenson had seen this before, too. Rage looked the same in any soul, old or young. He left the window and ran downstairs before his garden became an exhibition hall. The bully had gained his feet when Stephenson opened the door.

One of the children yelled, ‘Leg it!’

The children swarmed the low brick wall where they’d entered. Some needed a boost to get over it, including the girl. The boy who had felled the bully stayed behind, pushing the stragglers atop the wall.

Seeing this reinforced Stephenson’s initial reaction. There was something special about this boy. He was shrewd, with a profound sense of honor, and a vicious fighter, too. With proper tutelage . . .

Stephenson called out. ‘Wait! Not so fast.’

The boy turned. He watched Stephenson approach with an air of bored disinterest. He’d been caught and didn’t pretend otherwise.

‘What’s your name, lad?’

The boy’s gaze flickered between Stephenson’s eyes and the empty sleeve pinned to his shoulder.

‘I’m Stephenson. Captain, in point of fact.’ The wind tossed Stephenson’s sleeve, waving it like a flag.

The boy considered this. He stuck his chin out, saying, ‘Raybould Marsh, sir.’

‘You’re quite a clever lad, aren’t you, Master Marsh?’

‘That’s what my mum says, sir.’

Stephenson didn’t bother to ask after the father. Another casualty of Britain’s lost generation, he gauged.

‘And why aren’t you in school right now?’

Many children had abandoned school during the war, and after, to help support families bereft of fathers and older brothers. The boy wasn’t working, yet he wasn’t exactly a hooligan, either. And he had a home, by the sound of it, which was likely more than some of his cohorts had.

The boy shrugged. His body language said, Don’t much care for school. His mouth said, ‘What will you do to me?’

‘Are you hungry? Getting enough to eat at home?’

The boy shook his head, then nodded.

‘What’s your mum do?’

‘Seamstress.’

‘She works hard, I gather.’

The boy nodded again.

‘To address your question: Your friends have visited extensive damage upon my plantings, so I’m pressing you into service. Know anything about gardening?’

‘No.’

‘Might have known not to expect much from my winter garden if you had, eh?’

The boy said nothing.

‘Very well, then. Starting tomorrow, you’ll get a bob for each day spent replanting. Which you will take home to your hardworking mother.’

‘Yes, sir.’ The boy sounded glum, but his eyes gleamed.

‘We’ll have to do something about your attitude toward education, as well.’

‘That’s what my mum says, sir.’

Stephenson shooed away the ravens picking at the spilled food. They screeched to each other as they rode a cold wind, shadows upon a blackening sky.

 

23 October 1920
Bestwood-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, England

Rooks, crows, jackdaws, and ravens scoured the island from south to north on their search for food. And, in the manner of their continental cousins, they were ever-present.

Except for one glade deep in the Midlands, at the heart of the ancestral holdings of the jarls of Æthelred. In some distant epoch, the skin of the world here had peeled back to reveal the great granite bones of the earth, from which spat forth a hot spring: water touched with fire and stone. No ravens had ventured there since before the Norsemen had arrived to cleave the island with their Danelaw.

Time passed. Generations of men came and went, lived and died around the spring. The jarls became earls, then dukes. The Norsemen became Normen, then Britons. They fought Saxons; they fought Saracens; they fought the Kaiser. But the land outlived them all with elemental constancy.

Throughout the centuries, blackbirds shunned the glade and its phantoms. But the great manor downstream of the spring evoked no such reservations. And so they perched on the spires of Bestwood, watching and listening.

***

‘Hell and damnation! Where is that boy?’

Malcolm, the steward of Bestwood, hurried to catch up to the twelfth Duke of Aelred as he banged through the house. Servants
fled the stomp of the duke’s boots like starlings fleeing a falcon’s cry.

The kitchen staff jumped to attention when the duke entered with his majordomo.

‘Has William been here?’

Heads shook all around.

‘Are you certain? My grandson hasn’t been here?’

Mrs. Toomre, Bestwood’s head cook, was a whip-thin woman with ashen hair. She stepped forward and curtsied.

‘Yes, Your Grace.’

The duke’s gaze made a slow tour of the kitchen. A heavy silence fell over the room while veins throbbed at the corners of his jaw, the high-water mark of his anger. He turned on his heels and marched out. Malcolm released the breath he’d been holding. He was determined to prevent madness from claiming another Beauclerk.

‘Well? Off you go. Help His Grace.’ Mrs. Toomre waved off the rest of her staff. ‘Scoot.’

When the room had cleared and the others were out of earshot, she hoisted up the dumbwaiter. She worked slowly so that the pulleys didn’t creak. When William’s dome of copperyred hair dawned over the transom, she leaned over and hefted him out with arms made strong by decades of manual labor. The boy was tall for an eight-year-old, taller even than his older brother.

‘There you are. None the worse for wear, I hope.’ She pulled a peppermint stick from a pocket in her apron. He snatched it.

Malcolm bowed ever so slightly. ‘Master William. Still enjoying our game, I trust?’

The boy nodded, smiling around his treat. He smelled like parsnips and old beef tallow from hiding in the dumbwaiter all afternoon.

Mrs. Toomre pulled the steward into a corner. ‘We can’t keep this up forever,’ she whispered. She wrung her hands on her apron, adding, ‘What if the duke caught us?’

‘We needn’t do so forever. Just until dark. His Grace will have to postpone then.’

‘But what do we do tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow we prepare a poultice of hobnailed liver for His Grace’s hangover, and begin again.’

Mrs. Toomre frowned. But just then the stomping resumed, and with renewed vigor. She pushed William toward Mr. Malcolm. ‘Quick!’

He took the boy’s hand and pulled him through the larder. Gravel crunched underfoot as they scooted out of the house through the deliverymen’s door, headed for the stable, trailing white clouds of breath in the cool air. Malcolm had pressed most of the household staff into aiding the search for William, so the stable was empty. The duke kept his horses here as well as his motor car. The converted stable reeked of petrol and manure.

Mr. Malcolm opened a cabinet. ‘In here, young master.’

William, giggling, stepped inside the cabinet as Mr. Malcolm held it open. He wrapped himself in the leather overcoat his grandfather wore when motoring.

‘Quiet as a mouse,’ the older man whispered, ‘as the duke creeps around the house. Isn’t that right?’

The child nodded, still giggling. Malcolm felt relieved to see him still enjoying the game. Hiding the boy would become much harder if he were frightened.

‘Remember how we play this game?’

‘Quiet and still, all the same,’ said the boy.

‘Good lad.’ Malcolm tweaked William’s nose with the pad of his thumb and shut the cabinet. A sliver of light shone on the boy’s face. The cabinet doors didn’t join together properly. ‘I’ll return to fetch you soon.’

The duke, William’s grandfather, had gone on many long expeditions about the grounds with his own son over the years. Grouse hunting, he’d claimed, though he seldom took a gun. The only thing Mr. Malcolm knew for certain was that they’d spent much time in the glade upstream from the house. The same glade where the staff refused to venture, citing visions and noises. Years after the duke’s heir – William’s father – had produced two sons of his own, he’d taken to spending time in the glade alone. He returned to the manor at all hours, wild-eyed and unkempt, mumbling hoarsely of blood and prices unpaid. This lasted until he went to France and died fighting the Hun.

The duke’s grandsons moved to Bestwood soon after. They were too young to remember their father very well, so the move was uneventful. Aubrey, the older son and heir apparent, received the grooming expected of a Peer of the Realm. The duke showed little interest in his younger grandson. And it had stayed that way for several years.

Until two days previously, when he had asked Malcolm to find hunting clothes that might fit William. Malcolm didn’t know what happened in the glade, or what the duke did there. But he felt honor-bound to protect William from it.

Malcolm left William standing in the cabinet only to find the duke standing in the far doorway, blocking his egress. His Grace had seen everything.

He glared at Malcolm. The majordomo resisted the urge to squirm under the force of that gaze. The silence stretched between them. The duke approached until the two men stood nearly nose to nose.

‘Mr. Malcolm,’ he said. ‘Tell the staff to return to their duties. Then fetch a coat for the boy and retrieve the carpetbag from my study.’ His breath, sour with juniper berries, brushed across Malcolm’s face. It stung the eyes, made him squint.

Malcolm had no recourse but to do as he was told. The duke had flushed out his grandson by the time he returned bearing a thick dun-colored pullover for William and the duke’s paisley carpetbag. Malcolm made brief eye contact with William before taking his leave of the duke.

‘I’m sorry,’ he mouthed.

***

William’s grandfather took him by the hand. The ridges of the fine white scars arrayed across his palm tickled the soft skin on the back of William’s hand.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘It’s time you saw the estate.’

‘I’ve already seen the grounds, Papa.’

The old man cuffed the boy on the ear hard enough to make his eyes water. ‘No, you haven’t.’

They walked around the house, to the brook that gurgled through the gardens. They followed it upstream, crashing through the occasional thicket. Eventually the crenellations and spires of Bestwood disappeared behind a row of hillocks crowned with proud stands of yew and English oak. They traced the brook to a cleft within a lichen-scarred boulder in a small clearing.

Though hemmed about by trees on every side, the glade was quiet and free of birdsong. The screeches and caws of the large black birds that crisscrossed the sky over the estate barely echoed in the distance. William hadn’t paid the birds any heed, but now their absence felt strange.

Several bundles of kindling had been piled alongside the boulder. From within the carpetbag the duke produced a canister of matches and a folding pocketknife with a handle fashioned from a segment of deer antler. He built a fire and motioned William to his side.

‘Show me your hand, boy.’

William did. His grandfather took it in a solid grip, pulled the boy’s arm straight, and sliced William’s palm with his pocketknife. William screamed and tried to pull away, but his grandfather didn’t release him until the blood trickled down William’s wrist to stain the cuff of his pullover. The old man nodded in satisfaction as the hot tickle pulsed along William’s hand and dripped to the earth.

William scooted backwards, afraid of what his grandfather might do next. He wanted to go home, back to Mr. Malcolm and Mrs. Toomre, but he was lost and couldn’t see through his tears. His grandfather spoke again. But now he spoke a language that William couldn’t understand, more wails and gurgles than words. Inhuman noises from a human vessel.

It lulled the boy into an uneasy stupor, like a fever dream. The fire’s warmth dried the tears on his face. A shadow fell across the glade; the world tipped sideways.

And then the fire spoke.

About the Author

Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He was born and raised in Minnesota, where his parents had landed after fleeing the wrath of a Flemish prince. (The full story, he’s told, involves a Dutch tramp steamer and a stolen horse.) Nowadays he lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists and other unsavoury types.