Today, we have an excerpt from Kit Whitfield‘s In the Heart of Hidden Things. The author has written a quick introduction to the excerpt, so I’ll leave it to them to set the scene. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
Everyone knows that if you fall afoul of the People, you must travel the miles to Gyrford, where uncounted generations of fairy-smiths have protected the county with cold iron, good counsel and unvarnished opinions about your common sense.
But shielding the weak from the strong can make enemies. Ephraim Brady has money and power, and the bitter will to hurt those who cross him. And if he can’t touch elder farrier Jedediah Smith, he can harm those the Smiths care about.
The Smiths care about Tobias Ware, born on a night when the blazing fey dog Black Hal roared past the Wares’ gate. Tobias doesn’t understand the language or laws of men, and he can’t keep away from the Bellame woods, where trespass is a hanging offence. If Toby is to survive, he needs protection.
It should be a manageable job. Jedediah Smith has a head on his shoulders, and so too (mostly) does his son Matthew. Only Matthew’s son John has turned out a little… uncommon. But he means well.
It wasn’t his fault the bramble bush put on a berry-head and started taking offence. Or that Tobias upset it. But John’s not yet learned that if you follow the things other folk don’t see, they might drag those you love into the path of ruin.
Here’s a short intro from Whitfield:
The Smith clan are fairy-smiths: ironworkers, talisman-makers and surveyors who stand between the People – the fey spirits of the land – and their friends and neighbours. As the story begins, elder fairy-smith Jedediah Smith is investigating the Bellame woods, a notoriously fey spot, with his friend and protege Franklin Thorpe. Franklin, a forester, is supposed to keep folks out, for the local lord is quick to hang poachers and trespassers, but both of them know that beyond the boundary hedge lives the Ware family, whose son, Tobias, is something of an uncommon lad. And Franklin has noticed voices coming from a bramble bush…
IN THE HEART OF HIDDEN THINGS
Reaching into his pocket, Jedediah pulled out his iron glove. This wasn’t really a glove, but a loop of worked iron to slip over the knuckles: you knocked on the earth or the stones, and listened to hear if anything shrieked within. It wasn’t a failsafe way to find the People, but it was a good beginning, and it had the advantage that if anything streamed howling out of a tree trunk or dashed up from the soil in a shower of blinding gold, you were well equipped to land a good punch. Jedediah knocked and listened. He poked the earth, then pressed the iron against a leaf.
The entire branch squeamed down, and there was a sound from inside, something between a snarl of fury and an indignant yelp.
‘Ah,’ said Jedediah. Fey bushes were bread and butter. ‘Well, there’s your talker.’ He took from his pocket a small chain, link on iron link, and laid it round the base of the bush with a swift, practised swoop.
The twigs rattled against each other with the sound of snapping teeth.
‘If it were just a bush in the forest, Mister Smith,’ said Franklin Thorpe, sounding less confident than usual, ‘then of course I’d leave well enough alone. The Good Neighbours must live somewhere. But you see, this is a boundary hedge. And the truth is, Mister Smith . . .’
Jedediah had been tapping his iron glove against the spines with the air of a man shooing a chicken off its nest, and not really listening to Franklin. It was Franklin who jumped the highest, therefore, when the top of one of the stems cartwheeled down off the bush in an explosion of thorns and outrage and made a dash towards the offending men.
It might have gone ill with them if it wasn’t for the chain surrounding the bush, but as it was, the bundle of limbs stopped at the iron boundary and chattered in a series of vindictive clicks, each as dry as the snapping of a twig.
Jedediah looked down at it with a cautious regard. It was a thin thing, really, armed and legged with more or less the right number of limbs, albeit with a profusion of thorns on them and more angular air than was proper. Perhaps for the purposes of conversation, it had taken to wearing a blackberry for its head, and the beaded surface was giving it trouble as to the number of eyeballs it should settle upon.
‘Good day, kind friend,’ he said. ‘I hope you do not quarrel with your neighbours here.’
The thing bared its thorns at them.
Jedediah sat back on his heels. You don’t shoe horses by losing patience with them, and you don’t deal with the People if you can’t wait. ‘Good day, kind friend,’ he said again with no rise in his tone. ‘I hope you do not quarrel with your neighbours here.’
‘Neighbour ash, neighbour rat, neighbour holly, neighbour neighbour neighbour . . .’ Its voice was as thin as its limbs, a hoarse, piercing creak.
‘Your neighbours the men,’ Jedediah said. ‘I hope you do not quarrel with your neighbours the men.’
‘Neighbour ash, neighbour rat, neighbour holly, neighbour fox.’ The little thing was not one of the People’s freest talkers; it was gathering words together with evident effort. ‘Neighbour man no. Neighbour ash, neighbour rat, neighbour bush find us at.’
Franklin Thorpe stood behind Jedediah. His hands were in his pockets, so it was hard to explain exactly why it felt so much as if he was wringing them.
Jedediah put his gloved hand behind his back. ‘Answer questions, kind friend, Iron will go and trouble end,’ he said. He was not devoted to poetry, unless it had a good tune to go with it, but some People found it easier to follow you when you spoke in rhyme, and any forge kept a few quatrains amongst its equipment. ‘You say yes, you say no, Smith and iron away will go.’
‘No,’ said the little thing, which at least proved it understood what he was getting at.
‘You had an ash tree for a neighbour?’ Jedediah asked. ‘Yes.’ The thing shook what were more or less its arms. ‘And a holly bush, and a place where a rat lived?’
‘Do you mean to quarrel with your new neighbours?’
‘Neighbour ash, neighbour rat!’ The voice was rising. ‘Neighbour runner broke twig mine is!’
Jedediah gave a harsh cough. Things were becoming clear to him that he wasn’t happy about. ‘Will you keep from quarrels with men if you go back to your old neighbours?’
‘Yes.’ The blackberry head bent on its stem; several seeded bobbles attempted to blink. … Then it spat, and flurried back into a branch.
Jedediah stood up, dusting his hands. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s a nothing job. Folks dig up a bush in the forest without checking it, they anger the People, the People come bother them. Fools’ work.’
… Jedediah and Franklin might walk the Bellame woods unchallenged – it was Franklin’s place of work, and the whole county was Jedediah’s, private property or not – but the same could not be said of most common folk. There were necks unbroken in Gyrford this day because Franklin Thorpe had had a quiet word in the ears above them about keeping off rich men’s land, and since he wasn’t above a little charity when it was poach or starve, he had managed to spare his fellows a great deal over the years. But hangings still happened. Franklin couldn’t stop them all. Neither could the Smiths, although there had been times when a man spent a night in the forge and nobody had asked him any questions about why he was on the run. If you could keep out from under the eye of the grand, it was best for everyone.
And that worked as well as it could, so long as the fellow Franklin needed to help could hold a conversation. But both of them knew about Tobias Ware.
… Jedediah regarded Franklin with weary approval. ‘Just tell me a lie another time,’ he said. ‘You know I won’t think you false. If the Wares can’t ask me themselves, someone should. Better I hear it before that landlord of theirs does, God help them.’ ‘That landlord’ was Roger Groves, a colleague of Ephraim Brady and not much the better man. ‘Tell you what, if it’s about Tobias, come in the smithy and say there’s an oak that needs—’
He did not finish the sentence. There was no yell, no snarl or sob that broke into their conversation. It was just a patter of feet, a swift, soft lollop across the echoless earth of the forest that you’d hardly hear unless you were listening. The steps came to a stop just behind them, and when they turned to face the woods, there stood a boy, bright-eyed and all alive, twigs in his hair and scratches up his arms, and his face smudged with days of earth. He gave them just a glance, more at their mouths and their hands than at their eyes, then ducked himself to a sideways stance, standing rocking on his feet, half-turned away, his shoulder raised like a protective wing.
Jedediah looked at him for a long moment. Then he made a gesture to Franklin.
Franklin cleared his throat and spoke. ‘Good day, Tobias dear,’ he said.
Tobias Ware didn’t turn at the sound of his name, but he sidled up towards Franklin and rested a head against his shoulder just for a second, kissing the air with a light chirruping sound. Then he dodged away, grinning at the ground. Franklin had met him before, and had always been at pains not to hurt him; to Tobias’ understanding, this made him a beloved friend. The grin slid across the boy as fast as a gleam through a cloud, lighting him up, and he smiled towards the earth, as if confiding in it his pleasure at being greeted.
Franklin spoke softly: ‘I see you are on your way home, Tobias. Shall I take you to your brothers?’
When Franklin said ‘brothers’, Tobias bounced on his heels a little, a half-skip of contentment. He had no notion, Jedediah thought, which direction to aim his love, but he was joyful, alert, full of delight at the pleasant folks around him.
There was a dead rabbit in his hands. It hung there, limp-furred, dry-eyed, unmistakably poached: a death warrant dangling loose, broken paws. The boy’s mouth was smeared with blood, smiling calm as an angel as he ducked his head to tear dripping pink strips of flesh from its open throat.
Kit Whitfield’s In the Heart of Hidden Things is out today in paperback, published by Jo Fletcher Books in the UK.