On the day Jean was born, the dead howled.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Stone Road by Trent Jamieson, out from Erewhon Books on July 19th.
On the day Jean was born, the dead howled. A thin scratch of black smoke began to rise behind the hills west of town: Furnace had been lit, and soon its siren call began to draw the people of Casement Rise to it, never to return.
Casement Rise is a dusty town at the end of days, a harsh world of grit and arcane dangers. Jean’s stern, overprotective Nan has always kept Casement Rise safe from monsters, but she may have waited too long to teach Jean how to face those demons on her own. On Jean’s twelfth birthday, a mysterious graceful man appears, an ethereal and terrifying being connected to the family secrets Nan has hidden from Jean in an effort to keep her safe.
Now Nan must rush Jean’s education in monsters, magic, and the breaking of the world in ages past. If Jean is to combat the graceful man and finally understand the ancient evil powering Furnace, she will have to embrace her legacy, endure her Nan’s lessons, and learn all she can—before Furnace burns everything down.
On my twelfth birthday, a man came to visit, uninvited.
Twelve is a lucky number, though it didn’t turn out so lucky for me. I suppose that’s no surprise; it was my birthday, after all.
There was a party. There had been cake, and fairy floss made from an old hand-wound machine that Aunty Phoebe brought out with great delight every time someone in town had a birthday, whether they had a sweet tooth or not. Nan’s friend Jacob had come over with his placid pony, May, both pony and man possessed of infinite patience. He let me and the other children ride her even though I was a bit old for such things. I’d received from my aunts, who were generous that way, exactly three books, all of them printed by publishers in the Red City, all of them adventures. I liked that kind of book a lot. In truth, I’d rather have been reading them than playing party games.
I was the only one who saw the man, at first.
He came up from the creek, dressed in a cloak of leaves, walking daintily, like a cat crossing a puddle. He moved so gracefully that it was hard not to be captivated. I held my breath, watching him. It was the sort of grace that threatened to become chaos, but never did.
I might have run if I had more sense. Instead, I watched, waiting for it all to come undone. He was the most interesting thing I had seen that day. Which was why it was all the odder that no one else seemed to see him.
However, they did move to let him pass, with troubled looks on their faces that rippled out from his passage. Soon enough, everyone was frowning like someone had been sick in front of them, but no one was ill. Lolly Robson had thrown up on himself from all that fairy floss, but that was hours ago, and his mother had taken him and his brothers home—much to their horror, and his shame.
Even though it was my party, the guests were happy to leave me alone. My birthdays had a reputation for hazard. I was different. The other children weren’t grabbed by the dead when they walked barefoot. Their nans didn’t get up before dawn, and go out into the dark doing whatever it was that mine did. Seeing to problems, she called it. I just saw it as a secret. But I didn’t ask. I’d given up on asking. I never got an answer, just reproach.
I stood alone, a bit distant from everyone, watching the adults and their reactions to that graceful man’s approach.
He was swift, though he didn’t hurry, just walked right up to me. “Miss March,” he said. His voice had a chill to it. “I believe it’s time we met.”
He smelled of rot and river water, with a deeper scent of smoke. That last one was familiar: It filled the town whenever the wind blew in from the west over the Slouches, carrying the smell of Furnace with it, and giving me migraines. One was already coming on. Why did he smell like that? It brought back memories, things I thought I’d forgotten from my most babyish years. That smell. A chair. My nan holding me.
I was frightened, but he positively beamed at me, as though I was the cleverest, most enchanting thing he had ever seen. “I came to say happy birthday. Why, it’s my birthday, too, don’t you know?”
“Happy birthday,” I said, and he clapped his hands.
“She speaks!” He touched my face. I flinched—his fingers were clammy, the smell of smoke rising harder against the rot. I moved to step back, but he grabbed my wrist. “Thank you for the birthday wishes. They’re much appreciated, Miss March. I was beginning to think you were a mute.” He glanced at my boots. “You’re half-deaf as it is, wearing those. What’s your grandmother doing? You take those heavy boots off sometimes, I bet? Don’t you? You’re not all timid.”
He crouched down, and peered into my eyes. I tried to shut them, but I couldn’t. I tried to yank my hand from his, but he held it, steadily. He kept up his study of me. “Right. Don’t talk too much, now. It’s better if you keep your mouth shut, and listen.”
His eyes shone gold. They were quite beautiful, but there was something wrong in them: a shadow, and a hunger of sorts. How did he know my nan? He certainly thought little of her when it came to me.
“Don’t you want to know how old I am?” he asked.
When I shook my head, he seemed ready to slap me. I knew that look, though I mostly saw it on my mother’s face. I flinched.
Instead, he smiled. “I’m twelve,” he said. “How am I twelve when I’m a man? Do you know?” His grip tightened, and his mouth unhinged. His teeth were dark and sharp, his breath smelling of ash. “How am I twelve when I feel so old?”
I shrugged. How could I possibly know the answer? He came even closer, close enough that our lips almost touched. The world buzzed and popped, and my heart lost its rhythm, turning into a painful clenching. All I could smell was smoke. Time stilled. His hands that threatened violence lifted, and he reached up and pulled a golden coin out of my left ear. I swear, I’d felt it swell there.
There was a cruel delight in his eyes, almost as though he hadn’t expected that to happen. He winked. “Birthday magic,” he said. He pressed the coin into my palm. “This is my gift to you. If you want it.”
I nodded, clenched my fist around it. He smiled like he was truly happy. “I’m so very pleased,” he said. “Magic is the key to a good friendship, they say.”
“Get away from her.” And there was Nan. Face bloodless, full of fury. “Away.”
“I only came to wish her happy birthday.” He sounded surprised, almost offended.
“You weren’t invited.”
“I should have been.”
Nan held her walking stick like a club. “Get away from her.” She didn’t shout it, just said it cold and calm. In that moment, I was more scared of her than him. I’d not seen her like this before. A little moan passed my lips.
The man laughed. “You’ve coddled her, Nancy. Why? You weren’t treated so gently. She’s a mouse; a tiny, frightened mouse. Look at her, not a single bruise. At least, not from you. And there you are, weakening, weakening, and she’s never been tested. Doesn’t even suspect the troubles coming her way.”
I looked from him to her. What troubles? But Nan wasn’t looking at me.
“Get!” She swung her stick, and somehow missed.
“You shouldn’t do this,” he said. “You should have invited me. We’ve had our chats, but she’s my concern now.”
“Go,” Nan said, and swung again.
He danced backwards, out of reach.
“Happy birthday, Jean,” he said. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”
Then, without a hint of hesitation, he turned, so gracefully, and dived at my grandmother. What she did next was not at all graceful, but it was precise. She swung her stick, and there was such a loud crack that my ears rang. The world stopped buzzing, and the graceful man was gone, with nothing left of him except a pile of leaves that Nan quickly threw a match into.
She grabbed my shoulders, looked in my eyes like she was hunting something there. I wanted to turn my head, but that gaze held me. What was she looking for?
“You still in there?”
“Yes,” I said.
Something loosened in her. “Did he hurt you?”
I realised I had pissed myself, and I started to cry, full of shame. I knew that he had wanted to hurt me, though I didn’t know why.
I shook my head. Behind her, far too many people were staring at me. The children had stopped playing. Some folks were leaving, herding their children before them. I couldn’t see my mum. Later she’d come home, smelling of liquor, and she’d hold me, her eyes hard, like it was all my fault, like I’d called trouble down on me, and she was comforting me despite herself. But she’d hold me anyway, and I’d let her.
Nan leant down by the burning leaves, not much more than ash now. She jabbed at them with her walking stick, and they fell apart.
“Go clean yourself up,” she said, tapping her stick against her heel. “You’re safe now.”
I didn’t believe her. I didn’t know what to believe, but I knew I wasn’t safe. Troubles were coming, no matter what Nan said.
Excerpted from The Stone Road, copyright © 2022 by Trent Jamieson.