The Homeward Bounders

Free The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones

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Authors: Diana Wynne Jones
was marked out with bones.
    They were great big bones, rib-bones like the skeletons of ships and leg-bones as high as lamp posts. I’d met one of the animals they came from three days before. I wasn’t sure if it was a dragon or not, but it looked like one and it clearly thought I was good to eat. I only got away by hiding down the chimney of one of the fortresses. I don’t think the dragon breathed fire, but it sniffed at the chimney for a good hour, until I was almost roasted from the fire down below.
    â€œOn holy days we bring a bone and plant it here,” Helen explained.
    I made a grunt and pushed past her to go inside the ring of bones. The white sand inside was criss-crossed with the black shadows of the bones. It took me an instant to see that the sand among the shadows was squiggling. I stopped at once and pretended to be getting the sand out of my shoes. It was not imagination, or the heat. The place was alive with snakes.
    Helen came up beside me. I could feel she was disgusted at my cowardice. She clapped her hands, briskly and loudly. “Go away!” she said.
    The sand among the shadows sort of seethed, and the snakes went. I could see them pouring out between the bones on the other side of the circle. “Thanks,” I said. “Is that your gift?”
    â€œGreat Uquar, no!” she said. “Those were only snakes.”
    â€œI know,” I said. “I didn’t care to be stung.”
    â€œThey don’t sting. They bite,” she said. “Shall I show you my gift?”
    â€œIf you want,” I said, and I stepped into the circle of bones, meaning to be off elsewhere next second.
    â€œAs a great favor,” she said. “Look.”
    When someone says “Look,” you do. I looked in spite of the Bounds calling away. My eyes were getting used to the glare by then. Helen was rolling up the right sleeve of her black sweater. Her skin was a lot browner than mine, but her arm was an ordinary arm, bruised in one place and scratched in another.
    â€œSnap!” I said. “Only mine’s pinker.”
    A laugh came from behind Helen’s sheet of black hair. The arm went gray. It started at Helen’s fingers and grew gray the whole way up, and with every inch or so of grayness it grew a deep wrinkle, until it was gray and wrinkled right up to her shoulder. The skin of it seemed to get thick and dry, with just a few long black hairs growing on it. Where Helen’s hand had been were a couple of fleshy points, with two pinker holes deep inside. This gray arm swung and curled up. I could see it hadn’t any bone in it any longer.
    I said, “Eeeurgh!” and backed away. As I did, the gray arm shot out suddenly to twice its length, almost straightening out all its wrinkles, and wrapped itself round my neck. It felt warm and leathery. “Stop that!” I said. I backed away and tried to untwist the warm gray snake from my neck, but it was unbelievably strong. It clung and clung. Helen thought it was ever so funny. She threw back her head, so that I almost saw face behind the hair, and laughed and laughed at me, and went on hanging on. I went on going backwards, pulling at the gray arm and shouting at her to stop it, and pulling Helen along with me because she wouldn’t let go.
    Then we got to the place where the twitch came. And we both went together. I was so surprised that I stopped shouting. There we were, both of us, in much mistier sunlight, which made me feel almost blind for a moment. Helen had difficulty seeing too. She had one hand up, parting her front hair a bit, and there was a bright black eye showing. She was watching her gray arm turn brown and smooth again, from the shoulder downwards. I recognized it as it began to vanish.
    â€œThat’s an elephant’s trunk!” I said. “How did you do that?”
    â€œThat’s my gift,” she said. “I can just do it. Where are we?”

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