Book Excerpt! Matthew Jobin’s ‘The Skeleth’

In 2014, The Nethergrim was named New York Public Library’s Best Books for Teens 2014, it was chosen for the Texas Library Association’s 2015 Lone Star Reading List and selected as a finalist for the 2015 Monica Hughes Science Fiction and Fantasy Award. And now, the long-awaited sequel is finally here! Author Matthew Jobin has written the second book in The Nethergrim series, The Skeleth (Philomel Books, May 10) and we’re pretty sure it won’t disappoint. For a sneak peek, check out the excerpt below.

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The Skeleth: Chapter 3 

Tom reached out to grasp the black-and-white muzzle.

Quiet, Jumble! No barking.”

Jumble sat back on his haunches. He beat his ragged tail in the mud. Tom let go; Jumble’s mouth stayed shut.

John Marshal slid down to join them at the edge of the moat. “Well done, Tom.” He turned to look up the steep banks, to the drawbridge where they had stood but a moment before. Hoo eats clopped past on the planks above, thumping and thunking right over their heads. “We got out of sight just in time. You have fine ears.”

Jumble’s ears are better still.” Tom reached down to scratch them — one black, the other mostly white. The drawbridge obscured half the sky above, and with it the moon, leaving all else he could see lined in its reflected glow. “Master Marshal, what is happening?”

John Marshal waved out an arm. “Watch from the other side, Tom. Tell me what you see.”

Tom grabbed for one of the iron rings that dangled from the lowered drawbridge and used it to steady himself while he peered out from beneath its expanse. A damp cold had descended with the death of the day. Curls of steam rose from the reed-choked moat below. He had not known what to expect when he arrived at the castle of Lord Tristan, the greatest knight and hero he had ever heard about, but whatever he might have guessed, it would not have been what he saw just then.

“Aldred!” The rider who had passed by above dismounted in the tunnel that ran through the gatehouse of the castle, and thundered an armored fist on the narrow door recessed into one side. “Aldred Shakesby, I say! It is Wulfric of Olingham — you will open this door at once!” He wore thick mail armor under a deep blue surcoat, emblazoned with the image of the head of a ram. He bore two swords, one in his hand and another, larger one hanging from the saddle of his horse.

A roar resounded from farther down the tunnel, dozens of men shouting all together in the courtyard of the castle. “On three, boys! One, and, two, and –” A splintering boom drowned out the “three.”

John Marshal craned forth from cover, then ducked back to whisper. “Tom, my heart misgives me. I had hoped to bring you to a place of safety, somewhere far from the reach of your old master where you could begin your life anew. Instead, I might have led you into the gathering action of a war.”

The beginnings of a growl rose in Jumble’s throat. Tom shot him a look of command; he licked his chops and fell quiet again.

“Good dog.” Tom returned to his watch on the castle just before him. “I see a rider, Master Marshal, a knight in blue.”

“Sir Wulfric of Olingham.” John Marshal knit his graying brows. “The only son of Edgar, the baron of Wolland.”

“Is he a friend of Lord Tristan’s?”

John Marshal shook his head. “He is not.”

“Aldred!” The young knight beat the pommel of his sword against the door. “It is Wulfric! Open, I say!”

“Aye, sir knight, aye, we hear you.” The side door drew wide to reveal an old man, bald-pated and with a scar that cut from eye to chin. A younger, taller man with a braided beard leaned out from behind him, covering the tunnel with a loaded crossbow.

“What news, Aldred?” The young knight looped the reins of his horse over the posts of a broken-down cart in the tunnel beside him. “Quickly, man — tell me how we fare.”

“Tristan’s villagers are all down in the courtyard, sir knight, the whole stinking pack of ’em.” The old man spoke in a guttering slash, as though every word were a curse. “They’ve got a battering ram cobbled together, and they’ve started taking runs at the tower door. We’ve been picking ’em o  with crossbows from the battlements to slow ’em down a bit.”

“You will cease your fire at once.” Wulfric shouldered his way inside. “We have these men just where we want them. So long as they remain in the courtyard, you will not shoot without my orders. Now come, and show me about the battlements. We must make sure that their numbers match our needs.”

The scarred old man peered out, looking inward down the tunnel, then outward, forcing Tom and John to duck back into the shadows under the drawbridge. “Never heard of such a fool caper in all my born days.” He slammed the side door shut.

“Just where we want them, he says.” John Marshal rubbed his beard, deep in thought. “Their numbers match our needs — how to read such a riddle?”

“I don’t understand.” Tom stroked a hand through Jumble’s burr-infested coat. “Tristan is the greatest of all heroes. He once led an army against the Nethergrim, a creature that threatened all the world. Why would such a man have enemies?”

“It is a sad truth of life, Tom — you do not have to earn your enemies.” John squinted at the darkening scene before him. “This is how I read it. A force of Wollanders has taken Tristan’s castle by surprise or by trick, and now the men from Tristan’s village have come to take it back.”

Tom knew nothing of war, and so was not sure whether his question would have an obvious answer. “Then why is the drawbridge down?”

John nodded once. “You have the problem exactly, Tom. Why indeed? What attacker would be so foolish as to seize a castle, but then leave the gates open so that a relieving force could seize it right back?” His hood slipped back from his grizzled hair — he did not resemble his daughter, Katherine, so much in the shape of his features as the expressions that crossed them. Folk often said that Edmund thought a great deal, and Katherine had once told Tom that he thought deeply, but both Katherine and her father thought fast.

“It’s a trick, Tom. A trap.” John’s eyes flashed dark. “That’s why Tristan’s enemies left the gates up — they wanted the men of Tristan’s village to storm right into the courtyard.”

“But why?” said Tom. “What sort of trick is it?”

“That I do not know, though I fear . . .” John shook his head, as though unwilling to utter his guess aloud. “There’s nothing for it, though — we must warn them of their danger.”

A wind gusted up to crackle the leafless branches of the forest that ringed the castle. It brought a sound — shouts and cries from somewhere down the castle hill, higher in pitch than those that arose from within the courtyard, and speaking more of terror than of rage.

“That’s coming from the village just south of here, where most of Tristan’s people live,” said John in answer to Tom’s look. “Women and children.”

Tom felt his stomach give a lurch.

John Marshal braced his knee against the slope to give Tom a step upward. “I wish there was somewhere safe that I could send you, but I have no idea where safety might be found tonight. Stay close at my side.”

Tom seized hold of the chains of the drawbridge to help him scrabble onto level ground. A feeling of exposure gripped him as soon as he got up out of the moat, for the crossbowman walked the parapets above and not a bush grew within bowshot of the walls. “Master Marshal, do you see him?”

“Stay low, Tom. We are well within his range.” John took Tom’s offered arm and tried to hoist himself up out of the moat with his right hand — the bandaged hand. He hissed in pain, let go, and changed to his left. Once up onto the green, he pushed Tom in behind one of the two stones that marked the place where the lip of the drawbridge came down to touch the road, then sank against the other.

Tom reached into his belt and produced a quid of leaves — bruisewort and glorypith — snipped and bound at moonrise. He held it out.

“Thank you.” John took the leaves and put them in his mouth. He unwound the bandage to inspect the stump of his missing finger — the little finger, but it was his right hand, his sword hand.

Tom grabbed Jumble in his turn, pulling him up onto the grass by the scruff of his neck. “That knight, the one you called Wulfric — he didn’t look much older than I am.”

John wrapped the bandage tight again. “Wulfric’s only seventeen, if I recall correctly, but already a veteran of a battle or two away south.”

Tom hid himself behind the other stone; Jumble snuffled close and huddled in between his feet. “There was blood on his sword.”

“I know,” said John. “I saw.”

Another roar erupted from the castle courtyard, the sound of dozens of men shouting all at once. Fire awoke in the arrow slits of the gatehouse above the entrance tunnel, yellow crosses in the gloom.

“Run with your head low, quick but quiet.” John got up into a crouch. “If I tell you to retreat, do it at once, and do not stop until you reach the trees.”

Tom followed John to the lip of the drawbridge, then looked back. “Jumble. Jumble, come.”

Jumble would not budge. He huddled by the verge of the road, his hackles aquiver, a nervous whine rising at the end of every breath. His eyes flashed yellow, reflecting torch and full moon.

Tom tapped the chilly ground. “Here. Jumble, come here.”

Jumble turned his head, looking off into the distance. He looked at Tom again, then backed away from the castle with his tail dropped low.

Tom crept over to scratch Jumble’s head. “What is it, Jumble? What’s the matter?”

Jumble licked Tom’s hand, quaking with fear. Travel, strange smells, the fright l noises from the castle — any of these might make a dog unhappy, fear l and unsure of the world. Tom could not quite figure why, but he felt sure that there was something else, something he very much wished Jumble could tell him. He stopped scratching, and let him go where he would.

Jumble crept away at once, retreating from the castle and out onto the green. He turned at the edge of view, staring at Tom, his face a question, or a warning.

“We’ve no time, Tom. We’ll have to trust that he can find us again.” John Marshal started onto the drawbridge, and after a moment’s reluctance, Tom went after him, still glancing back in hopes of beckoning Jumble along. Tom felt the pain of separation, but could only hope that Jumble would be safer alone outside than in the midst of battle. He soon lost sight of Jumble’s receding form in the shadows and had to turn his attention to his own feet, to make sure he padded as silently as he could along the wooden span of the drawbridge so as not to draw the attention of the crossbowman on the walls just above.

Piles of sacks lay heaped along the walls of the gatehouse tunnel, some opened to reveal their contents — a few bushels of apples going fast to rot. Rushes lay stacked in bundles on two carts, one of which looked in very poor repair. Tom pointed upward, at the line of holes cut into the high arched ceiling. “Master Marshal, what are those for?”

“Dropping things on people.” John pulled Tom aside, keeping to the wall of the tunnel. “They’re called murder holes — stay clear of them.”

Wulfric’s horse snorted and tossed his head, still standing tied to the cart where his rider had left him — an enormous beast, the kind of grand stamping charger Tom had often seen in training at John Marshal’s farm back in Elverain. John approached the horse, one hand held forth in a calming gesture. “Steady, lad. Steady, now — you’ll get no trouble from me.” He reached out, and in one swift motion drew the sword from its scabbard on the saddle. “Young Wulfric might live to regret leaving his great sword-of-war unguarded. Then again, he might not live to regret it.”

Tom stared at him.

“This is war, Tom, and Wulfric is in it by his own choosing.” John leaned by the side door through which Wulfric had passed. He readied the sword, preparing to swing at anyone who opened it, then nodded for Tom to pass on by.

A crash and a clang sounded from above. Tom craned back to look. He saw nothing but torchlight through the murder holes, but voices floated down from the gatehouse: “Drop the gates, drop the gates! Her eminence is almost ready!”

Tom exchanged a look with John — her eminence?

The voice of Aldred Shakesby rasped out in command. “To the winch, boys, and jump to it! Move, I said! Tanchus — Tanchus, you dung-for-brains, put that down! There’s time for counting spoils later.”

“Spoils, my eye!” A third voice spoke — male, like the others, but whiny and high-pitched. “Look at this hovel — I’d get better plunder sacking a poorhouse!”

“Shut your noise, you ugly rat.” Aldred barked the complaints down to silence. “Now come on, boys, move it, move!”

John seized Tom by the arm. “Onward, Tom — run!” They pelted down the tunnel together, bursting out into the courtyard just in time. An iron portcullis banged down across the inner mouth of the tunnel behind them, missing John by a matter of inches.

“This way!” John dodged to the left, leading Tom into the shadows under the wooden outbuildings that ringed the castle walls. He peered out at the battlements above. “Keep to the shadows, and watch for that crossbowman.”

Tom glanced back at the gatehouse. “But aren’t we trapped?”

“There is a postern gate, a back way that leads from the courtyard down to the river that flows behind the castle.” John crept onward, under the eaves of what looked like an abandoned smithy. “We must get a warning to Tristan and his men, and then get clear of the castle. From there we can decide our next move all together.”

“What about Jumble?”

“We’ll look for him as soon as we can, I promise you.” John beckoned him in between a pair of wooden buildings by the wall. “Many of the older men of Tristan’s village will know me on sight, and the younger ones should at least know me by name. Stay near.”

Tom ducked and dodged after John through courtyard grass that seemed surprisingly long and poorly tended. Piles of debris lay strewn all about — old tools, rotted wood, a plowshare gone to rust. A tower loomed at the opposite end of the courtyard, taller by far than anything else in the castle. Torches swarmed and swirled at its foot, racing back and forth as the village men plied the ram to the door.

“The postern gate is over there, Tom, right behind the great hall.” John gestured out across the courtyard. “If we get separated, go through it and down the tunnel to the river. The village is downstream — follow the banks.”

Tom took a momentary pause to get his bearings in the moonlight. The buildings — a smithy and perhaps a stable — looked in very poor repair, half bald of thatching on the roofs and  ll of holes in the wattle of the walls. The great watchtower leaned well out of straight, joined to the rest of the walls with too much mortar and precious little skill. Even amidst his terror, it still came as a shock; the more he saw of Tristan’s castle, the shabbier and more run-down it looked.

John peered around the back of the long, low stables. “Now come, we’ve got to reach the men and persuade them to retreat. Their lives depend on it.”

Tom darted out behind him, watching the battlements for any sign of the crossbowman. He saw no one on the walls, though he thought he caught a flash of movement atop the watchtower, someone looking briefly down at the attackers below before withdrawing from view.

“Men of Harthingdale!” John raised his voice as they reached the crowd of torches by the foot of the tower. “It is John Marshal. Listen and heed me, you have walked into a trap!”

An old man stepped out of the torchlight. “Well, I’ll be a bolgug’s grandmother!” He leaned on a spear whose shaft was almost as twisted as his back. “Now, there’s some luck — lads, this here is John Marshal himself! Here, John, we’ve got the northern battlements and we’re almost through the door, so give us the word on how to fight once we’re in.”

John Marshal took his introduction for all it was worth. “All of you men — all of you, listen!” He stepped out into the light. “As you value your lives, you must leave now. The gates are shut, so take the postern tunnel. Hurry, with me!”

The men at the battering ram paused in their count, looking back in confusion. “But we’re almost through. We’ve almost got them!”

Tom shot a look up the steps to the door. They really were almost through — the door was half off its hinges, staved in at the middle and ready to give way. Men held up boards to shield the battering crew, but no one fired or dropped anything from the tower or surrounding walls.

“You must trust me,” said John. “You have walked into a trap! We have no time to discuss the matter!”

The village elder stretched out an arm at the walls around him. “If these brigands keep this castle, there won’t be anywhere safe in this valley, as well you know, John Marshal.

They could ride out at us whenever they like, and our lives wouldn’t be worth living.”
“We don’t have time to argue!” John lost his temper. “We must retreat! Where is Tristan? He will heed me. Where is your lord?”

“Why retreat when we can attack?” The men took up their battering ram. “Let’s batter through, and whoever’s in that tower, let them look to running while they can!”

Tom’s stomach clenched in. He felt exposed, surrounded by the high curtain walls from which an attack might come at any instant. He kept to the shadows, scanning the western corner of the castle before him. Doors opened out onto the battlements from each side of the watchtower, and it looked like a fight had taken place atop the northern wall, for men lay collapsed and still along the walk. The villagers rolled and roared in their count — one, two, three, and then another crunching run against the door. In its echo rose the sound of a new voice, coming from the highest turret of the tower.

“Do you hear that?” Tom grabbed John’s sleeve to get his attention. “Master Marshal, do you hear it?” He cocked an ear — it was a woman’s voice, raised to a chant from somewhere high up in the tower. The noises of the villagers obscured what she said, but she spoke in strong rhythm, full of fury and empty of fear.

John strained to listen. His face lost its color. “Oh, no. No!” He shoved Tom. “Run! To the back wall, to the postern gate. Run for your life!”

Tom’s heart thumped and bounced in his chest. He crossed the courtyard at a flying dash, making for the place where he thought he saw the outline of a door. The voice of the woman rang out triumphant, chanting in a fierce, resounding ecstasy.

Something fell from the top of the tower. It struck the earth beside the village men and broke open, letting out a pallid glow and then a keening wail.

Excerpted from The Skeleth by Matthew Jobin. Copyright © 2016. All rights reserved. Used with permission of Philomel Books.

Loving Matthew Jobin’s The Skeleth so far? Go order a copy today!

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

010915_mcguirkjobin_ContentA native of Canada, Matthew Jobin holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford University. He lectures in anthropology at Santa Clara University. The idea for The Nethergrim came to Matthew as a young boy exploring the forest surrounding his home. Intent on telling the story of this fantasy world, he’s been developing it and its inhabitants ever since. Matthew lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Tina.

For more information visit his website at: http://www.matthewjobin.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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