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Nettle and Bone

Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

the book Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher in a bit with bones and charcoal

Marra is sitting in a charnel pit making a dog out of bones. She has to sift through other animal and human bones to find just the right pieces to fit together, knitting them together with wire. As Marra is thinking about a rhyme she heard once bone dog, stone dog, crows let out a warning call. Someone is approaching. Pulling down her cloak made of owlcloth tatters and spun-nettle cord, Marra sees a man come through the trees that could be a roving cannibal so she must take care. The person walks past and the crows settle as Marra continues her work on the bone dog. At dusk, the bone dog comes to life and immediately runs off. Three tasks the dust-wife had given her: sew a cloak of owlcloth and nettles, build a dog of cursed bones, and catch moonlight in a jar of clay, and she’s failed already. 

Marra was the youngest of three daughters. Her eldest sister, Damia, was promised to another kingdom to solidify alliances through marriage, and her middle sister, Kania, hated Marra’s guts. Her father was absent and her mother was busy ruling the kingdom. Five months after Damia went to her husband's kingdom, she is returned in state, dead from a fall, apparently. Barely a season after Damia’s death, the Prince offers to marry Kania, but it’s too soon. While Marra fears for her sister, Kania is confident what happened to Damia won’t happen to her. After a year, Kania heads North to the Prince. Eight months later, Marra goes to the convent because the Prince and Kania have not conceived yet and any children Marra might have could cause problems with succession. 

Marra originally arrived at the blistered land despite being warned against going in because it’s full of cannibals, but received warm welcomes from the people there. It’s a strange place that seems to take no time at all to reach, just right on the doorstep; it’s too close, too real, and too hungry, and when she leaves someone yells at her to stop. A man asks her about where she is from, the Harbor Kingdom, and what she is doing. This is ridiculous, would a hero be challenged?! He shakes his shovel demanding she leave, but then she realizes his fear is for her bone dog which emerges through the shadowy trees. Reunited with her bone dog, they return to the dust-wife, task two complete.

Before this, five years into her stay at the convent, the Queen informs Marra that her sister Kania is pregnant at last and they make arrangements to visit. The Queen gives Marra the option to visit as a princess but Marra decides to wear her robes and go as a nun instead. The Queen and Marra go to Kania as she is in the throws of a painful labor, and while the Queen fetches Kania some water, Kania tells Marra that if she should die, she must run away or ruin herself, anything to not let herself be married off to the Prince and this hell. At last Kania gives birth to a baby girl. 

Marra hates the court and is treated by the courtiers like she is simple. The maid Marra is assigned is extremely superstitious and has a lot to say about dead kings and queens, the cold crypt they rest in known as the palace under the palace, and the strange way the royal family ages so quickly. The current wizened King is only fifty! At the christening, Marra meets the Prince, and a shriveled old woman wearing enough lace to buy a palace is announced as the royal godmother and bestows a blessing upon the baby, Virian. She says, “I shall serve her as I have served all her line, my life bound to theirs. No foreign magic shall harm them. No enemy shall topple their throne. As it has been for all the children of the royal house, so shall it be for her, as long as I draw breath.”  

Shortly after, Marra returns to the convent with unsatisfying gossip about the court of the Northern Kingdom. Only a few months later Marra is told Kania is pregnant again. Marra expects to be summoned for the birth at any time but it does not come, and after eleven months, Marra decides Kania must have lost the child. Months later, Kania is pregnant again. Working with the sister apothecary now, Marra has learned a lot about birth and decides it is something she does not want.

In her fifteenth year at the convent, Marra receives a letter telling her Virian has died of the fever spreading throughout the kingdom and she must journey to her sister. When Marra reaches the Northern Kingdom, her mother is there and she notes Kania is pregnant again. Virian was her only birth. The family dinner that night is super awkward, highly inappropriate given the circumstances, and the Prince is an asshole to Kania. Kania announces that she will spend the night with Virian in the chapel and asks Marra to join her. 

When Marra and Kania are finally left alone by the guards, the sisters pray. Kania confesses that though she gave birth to Virian she was never allowed to be her mother, she was permitted a few minutes with her a day at most and saw none of her milestones and feels nothing now she is dead. Marra notices marks on Kania who tells her that the Prince hurts her, usually not while she is pregnant with the fear of miscarriage, but he is angry now. The Prince is terrified of a bastard child on the throne and takes it out on his wife. Kania is a prisoner. Marra tells her sister he must die but there is no opportunity for Kania to carry out the deed as they are never alone. Once Kania gives birth to a boy, her life will be worthless, but Kania will endure. 

Back at her mother’s palace, Marra tells her mother about the abuse Kania suffers. The Queen agrees the Prince is a monster but only wishes the next child is a boy and heir, because the Queen has the possibility of war to consider. And yes, her mother knew about the Prince’s actions against Damia. The Prince chose his victims well, daughters who need an alliance and can’t fight back out of fear of the retaliation the Kingdom would endure. The Queen tells Marra to say nothing to no one and offers no assurance Kania will be alright.

Marra returns to the convent, unsatisfied with being unable to help her sister. She gives a half truth about Kania’s wellbeing to the sister apothecary, who offers her luck. Night after night, Marra dreams increasingly creative yet useless schemes to kill the prince and save her sister. One day word reaches Marra of a death in the Northern Kingdom, the King, so now the Prince has become King Vorling of the North. Marra doesn’t know if this is better or worse, but she’s full of rage either way. When Marra overhears two lay sisters talking, she is inspired to visit a dust-wife, hoping they can help.

When she can, Marra goes to the town and to the graveyard where a dust-wife resides. Marra vaguely explains the situation, and after a few general recommendations that are easily discounted, the dust-wife grabs Marra’s hands, holding them tightly for a few moments. She tells Marra she needs a real dust-wife, one married to clay and bone and grave dirt, and to find one, she must head south and east to the dry plains. 

Traveling frugally as a nun after experiencing a particularly nasty coach ride spent being harassed by a man, Marra reaches a dust-wife who directs her down the way through ancient graves to THE dust-wife, who is less intimidating because of the chickens she keeps, regardless of the brown hen having a demon in her. 

The dust-wife assigns Marra three impossible tasks before she will help her kill Vorling. The first is to sew an owlcloth cloak with nettle thread. It isn’t easy, it isn’t painless, but others' pain is worse, so Marra perseveres and is able to sew the impossible cloak. Next, she is told to make the bone dog and the story reconnects. Marra returns to the dust-wife with her canine companion, ready for the third impossible task, to catch moonlight in a jar of clay. This is vexing to the dust-wife because the point of an impossible task is that they are meant to be impossible, and therefore, Marra was not meant to complete them. Twice. The dust-wife hands Marra an earthenware jar that when opened bathes Marra in blue-white light. The dust-wife instructs her to hand the jar back then declares the impossible tasks complete. They will leave in three days to kill the King, but it will take them weeks to reach their destination. 

After four days of slow travel, the dust-wife declares they must go to the goblin market. She needs to get directions and, finding a ford in a stream, the dust-wife throws in a pebble and instructs Marra not to talk to the dead that will rise from it. A bloated drowned dead boy swims up stream, gurgling his response to the dust-wife. Apparently, he was able to give the dust-wife the directions she needs and suddenly a wide staircase appears, leading down to the goblin market.

The goblin market is filled with all types, shapes, colors and varieties of creatures. The dust-wife finds a stall with moths, knowing that one will be able to help them find what they need to complete their quest. She negotiates two-weeks of Marra’s life for a moth and instructs Marra to blow across it and ask it to help her find what she needs to help her sister. They follow the moth through the market past a woman Marra assumes is a saint, to a seller with an array of teeth where a large man sits wearing a metal collar so fine it could be lace. For the price of a nun’s tooth, one of Marra’s teeth, they buy the man. With one last stop to purchase a glamour for Bonedog, which only costs a demon egg, they leave the goblin market. 

Once free from the market, the large man introduces himself as Fenris. Fenris was a Knight before murdering a monstrous Lord and his men and, as penance, he slept in a fairy fort and was taken into servitude at the market. He doesn’t know how long he was in the goblin market because time doesn’t work the same there. Fenris also doesn’t have a problem killing a Prince who deserves to die, especially after Marra explains the prince's crimes. The dust-wife points out one problem they must overcome: the royal godmother. To the shock of the dust-wife and Fenris, Marra tells them she has a godmother. 

The group continues to travel North, bartering work for food or relying on Bonedog to hunt down game. When they finally arrive in Marra’s kingdom she feels nothing. The dust-wife asks where her godmother lives and they start walking in that direction. The godmother, Agnes, recognizes “one of hers” but not who specifically until Marra pointedly introduces herself as Princess Marra and the realization dawns. ooh As Agnes makes tea, Marra berates her for gifting health and a Prince to Damia just for her to be murdered by him, and also health to Kania who endures beatings by the same man. Marra sees her gift of health as useless, while the dust-wife sees that Agnes can only bestow the gift of health. Fenris wonders why a godmother with a single gift would serve the royal family, but learns it’s because she is Marra’s great-aunt. Of course they’re family. The dust-wife tells Agnes of their quest and Agnes offers to come along without question. 

Eventually the group sets off on their quest to kill the prince. The dust-wife asks about becoming a godmother and whether they can curse as well as bestow gifts, and Agnes confesses she has cursed but it scared her and refuses to do it. This leads to wondering about the gift bestowed by the Northern Kingdom’s royal godmother and how they can use it. Marra remembers what was bestowed on her dead niece and tells them what the royal godmother said, “I shall serve her as I have served all her line, my life bound to theirs. No foreign magic shall harm them. No enemy shall topple their throne. As it has been for all the children of the royal house, so shall it be for her, as long as I draw breath."

It takes two days to reach the capital of the Northern Kingdom and Marra is overwhelmed with the task before them. As they aren’t going to kill the prince that night, they need to find somewhere to stay. During their journey, they tell Agnes about the moth and Fenris, and she thinks she can do something similar but she needs a baby. Fenris draws the line at kidnapping a child, but all Agnes needs is a baby animal which can be returned to its parent after. The dust-wife’s demonic chicken gives a timely cluck so they decide to find a chick. It doesn’t take Fenris long to find a reputable chicken seller, but it takes Agnes a little longer to find the right chick and ask it to find them somewhere safe. Placing the chick on the ground the group follows it, Agnes re-spelling it every now and then, until they reach Miss Margaret’s boardinghouse, though a girl sitting nearby warns them about him

Miss Margaret has two rooms for rent and names a very low price. When they enter, something on Miss Margaret’s shoulder catches their attention, him. He is a wooden marionette puppet whose string loops Miss Margaret’s throat. Agnes unsubtly reacts to the puppet, noting it’s a curse-child, and as she does, he pulls the string tight over Miss Margaret’s throat. Realizing her faux pas, Agnes shuts up then suddenly hands the chick to Marra before fainting dead away. The dust-wife explains she’s overcome with using too much magic. While Marra is wary of the curse-child, the dust-wife says it will be fine, after all, it will just choke Miss Margaret not anyone else, plus the rooms are clean and they're getting a meal a day. It's a bargain!

Later, Marra and Fenris are in one of the rooms together. Now there are walls and a closed door, it seems… close. Fenris admits that through their journey people at the inns liked to gossip about the royal family so he reciprocates and tells Marra about being a squire, his ambition, duty, and the Lord who was abusive to his son and tortured him to death, so Fenris killed him to avenge the boy before jumping into the fairy fort. During the night, through the thin walls, Marra overhears the dust-wife and Agnes talking. It turns out Agnes cursed the chick to find the boardinghouse because her magic doesn't stick well unless it’s a curse. 

The next morning over breakfast, Agnes offers to go and speak to the royal godmother, professional to professional. She suspects what she whispered to the child may be different to what she said out loud. Marra offers to go with her, assuming she went unnoticed that one time she saw her. Agnes grabs the chick she has named Finder, gets the basic direction of where the royal godmother would live from Miss Margaret and heads out. On the way, Agnes needles Marra about Fenris, using a lot of wiggly eyebrows and nudges in the ribs. 

Eventually they reach the royal godmother’s house which is really more of a temple, and after getting past the guard, they are permitted to see the royal godmother. The royal godmother serves them tea and Marra drinks, however, not long after her sip, she starts feeling strange. Marra knows the godmothers are there and talking, and she hears the royal godmother mention that of course there is a curse but they seem distant and too big and the tapestries adorning the royal godmother’s house steal all her attention with their strange and unskilled looking weaves and knots. The royal godmother notices Marra, and she offers her a present before they leave, a cutting from one of the tapestries, telling Marra she may or may not find it useful. 

Outside, Agnes tells Marra it wasn’t the tea but the royal godmother who didn’t want anyone listening to them that sent her to the tapestries. Turns out, she is more powerful and a heck of a lot older than the dust-wife. Oh! She’s also not blessing the royal babies but cursing them and has done so for centuries. Back at the boardinghouse they discuss the curse and what it means, obviously she’s draining the life out of the royal children to keep herself alive because she was bound to always serve the royal family and no, other magic will not work on the royal family, not even a small healing spell. The tapestry still remains a mystery. Suddenly Marra remembers that all the dead kings are buried beneath the palace, including the king who bound the royal godmother. Maybe the dust-wife can speak to him and free her from her duties.

They scope out the palace tomb over the next few days, there must be a service entrance in addition to the royal entrance where all the pomp and ceremony takes place. The dust-wife suggests Fenris take off his shirt and apply for a job as a stonemason because they’ll always be digging for new tombs. Unfortunately for Marra and Agnes, Fenris doesn’t need to take off his shirt to get a job and thankfully picks up his new task quick enough not to get fired straight away. 

A few days later, Agnes bursts into the boardinghouse with news that Kania has given birth to a boy. The gossip is weird and wonderful but none of it is about the health of their Queen Kania. That night, when Fenris returns, he announces they’ve found a way in through the abandoned haunted quarry. Because the christening will take place in three days, they haven’t got long. Agnes seems to be the only way into the palace, Marra is too conspicuous, but no one can turn down a godmother. The dust-wife points out that once the royal godmother is free, so are the protections around the king, and there are a thousand magics that can rectify their situation. wink

The next morning they leave the boardinghouse, and, as they give their thanks to Miss Margaret, the dust-wife offers her a choice to be free of the curse-child. Miss Margaret begs to leave him alone. They head to the abandoned haunted quarry where the dust-wife breaks the bars barring the entrance before pulling out some of the moon light which illuminates the usual curses and threats against grave robbers. Now, they need to find the grave of the first king. 

They go grave by grave looking for the oldest. One has promise and the dust-wife knocks to wake the dead occupant up and opens the sarcophagus. The occupant, a consort, was buried alive for killing her husband's bastard children (she didn’t do it). She’s cantankerous, pompous and still angry but gives them a hint to look for a boat which is oddly helpful and they continue their search. Unfortunately a strange feeling creeps over the group and the whispers of run and coming for you swirl through the catacombs. The ghosts of the grave robbers are warning them of the thief-wheel coming for them, a cursed tangle of dead grave robbers and unfortunate souls designed to collect more, and the dust-wife can’t stop it from trapping them. Eventually Marra is dropped from the thief-wheel, cold and alone, but after wandering a little while through the tombs, Marra sees the saint from the Goblin Market and she leads her to the others. 

Now they must hurry. They've lost a day but luckily they find the fairly simple tomb of the first king and the dust-wife wakes him up before ordering him to release the godmother. The first king is a jerk and refuses to release the godmother and challenges the dust-wife’s power. The dust-wife runs a finger along a crack in the dead king’s death mask before setting the demon chicken down to peck at the crack and the king screams in agony. Marra and Fenris can feel the magic, Agnes can see it and she’s very impressed. When the chicken finishes breaking open the death mask, it poops into the hole onto the king’s face before strolling to the dust-wife’s shoulder. Though the king’s ghost is not quite gone, his magic has slipped which will allow the godmother to free herself from his clutches. As the dust-wife begins to stroll confidently out of the tomb, she crumples into an exhausted heap.

As they decide their next step, Marra realizes the tapestry the godmother gave her has directions out of the catacombs. She couldn’t directly help them because of the first king’s curse, but she was able to give veiled assistance. Following the knots and threads, Marra is able to lead them to the godmother’s temple where the ancient woman is waiting to die, but first, she wants to see who freed her. As she takes a last sip of tea, the royal godmother turns to dust. Agnes has a moment of panic before being filled with resolution, she needs to be the impressive wicked godmother now. 

A guard has come for the royal godmother but the dust-wife puts him to sleep. Meanwhile, Marra makes her grand dash entrance into the Christening announcing an accident that delayed her. Thankfully the guards admit her and her mother doesn’t ask her questions aloud. Vorling, on the other hand, is impatiently and loudly saying he is being made a fool of waiting for the royal godmother. Marra looks at him in contempt, but instead of telling him how she really feels, she tells Vorling that as she was coming through the city, everyone was saying that the royal godmother is dead. Meanwhile, Agnes, from the doorway, says she will stand in as the baby’s godmother. 

As Vorling watches in confusion. Agnes lays a finger on the baby’s head and says, "This gift I give you ... You shall grow up fatherless." Then for old times sake, "And healthy." Everyone is still before Vorling screams to stop her. Agnes makes a run for it with Bonedog attacking the guards in her way. A guard wielding a halberd brings it down on Bonedog and bones explode everywhere. Fenris, meanwhile, has run his sword through the king. Kania looks at the chaos around her, then at Marra and understands everything. As the guards are about to kill Fenris, Kania stops them and demands Fenris live because they need to find out what exactly happened, so the guards drag him away. Kania and Marra exchange a look before the Queen thanks her sister for trying to warn them and then she declares she will stand as regent for her son until he comes of age.

An hour later, as Kania cradles her son, their mother congratulates Kania on taking charge. Kania promises she will try and do what she can for Fenris. The realization that her abuser is dead hasn’t hit Kania yet, and Marra apologizes for not helping sooner. As Marra sits with her mother and sister, an idea to save Fenris forms. The king’s assassin will be entombed alive.

Fourteen hours later Marra and the dust-wife strain to open the sarcophagus and free Fenris. Together they leave the catacombs, then leave the city, Marra knowing she will never return. Before departing, her sister gave her two gifts: a purse filled with money and a bag filled with Bonedog’s bones. After a few days' travel, the dust-wife and Agnes leave Marra and Fenris with orders for them to give in to each other at last. First, however, and more importantly, Marra rebuilds Bonedog. 

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