Eleven-year-old Danny O'Neill has never been what you'd call adventurous. But when he wakes the morning after a storm to find his house empty, his parents gone, and himself able to hear the thoughts of a dying tree, he has no choice but to set out on a quest to find answers. He soon learns that the enigmatic Book of Storms holds the key to what he seeks . . . but unraveling its mysteries won't be easy. If he wants to find his family, he'll have to face his worst fears, battle terrifyingly powerful enemies, and confront a shadowy and demonic figure: Sammael.
This powerfully written debut reveals a world where magic seamlessly intertwines with the everyday and nothing is black and white. For Danny, the only certain thing is that time is running out . . . and he must hurry if he wants to rescue everything he holds dear.
About the Author
Ruth Hatfield is a sometime archaeologist, sometime technician who lives in Cambridge, England. When she's not writing or digging or making circuit boards, she spends her time belting around on a bike and roaming the countryside on her cantankerous horse. The Book of Storms is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
The Book of Storms
By Ruth Hatfield
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2014 Ruth Hatfield
All rights reserved.
Danny O'Neill rubbed his eyes against the sunlight and wandered into his parents' bedroom to find some clean socks from the washing pile. The double bed was empty, the crumpled bedclothes thrown back. Normally they made their bed as soon as they were up.
Danny put his hand on his short brown hair and tried to press it down to his scalp.
"Mum?" he called. "Mum? Dad?"
The house echoed with silence.
"Dad?" he tried again.
Again there was no answer.
Perhaps they were outside doing something in the garden. It was a bit early, but parents did strange things sometimes, for odd reasons of their own.
Downstairs in the hallway he found the front door ajar and the carpet soaked with rainwater. The phone table had blown against the bookcase and overturned, spreading scraps of wet paper all over the walls. Two framed pictures had fallen off their hooks and smashed against the baseboard. They were both of baby Emma, who'd died before Danny was born, and they'd hung there his whole life, fading a little more every time the sun broke through into the hall. Now that the glass was broken, raindrops had splashed over Emma's cheeks, giving her a red rash that looked like chicken pox.
Where were his parents? They always came home. They were always there in the morning, no matter what happened at night.
He picked up the phone and tried to call their mobiles, but both numbers put him through to a recorded voice. Dead.
A thin breeze pierced his cotton pajamas, puckering his skin into goose bumps. As the prickling sensation crawled up over his neck, he wasn't sure that it was all due to the cold.
The house was entirely still.
He padded through the kitchen to the back door, his feet leaving wet prints on the tiles, and pressed his nose against the glass panel. Twigs, leaves, and pieces of broken fence littered the lawn, but it wasn't until Danny stepped outside that he saw what had woken him in the middle of the night. The old sycamore tree had been struck by a huge bolt of lightning and had split, right down its trunk, almost to the smoking earth.
It stood blackened and dead. A swing once tied to a low branch hung melted on its chains, and a few wisps of mist clung around the ground where the trunk was whole.
The lightning had struck only yards from his house. Only yards from the bedroom where he'd lain, trembling under his covers.
For a second Danny forgot his parents and gazed at the twisted wood. He wanted to reach out and touch the charcoal branches. Would they feel solid, or somehow light? Would they crumble away into dust under his fingers? A patch of ashy debris lay around the trunk: gray-black lumps of sycamore and charred stems of undergrowth. He stooped down, wondering if it was still warm, and his eye stopped, noticing something brown against the black cinders. A stick the color of the old, living tree.
He picked it up. Although the stick was as thin as a pencil, it didn't crumble but stayed hard, refusing to break under the pressure of his fingers. For a second he frowned, wondering at its strange heaviness.
A low moaning sound crept into his ear.
"The last ... the most precious piece of me.... Oh ..."
Danny instantly knew it was the tree that had spoken, although he had no idea how he'd known. It hadn't moved a single twig.
"Hello?" he said, unsure of how to address a dying tree.
"Oh ... don't bother ... with the niceties...." The tree was gasping a little now. "No time ... It had to be ... Step into the light. I can hardly see you...."
Danny was standing in bright sunlight. "I'm in the light," he said.
"Oh ... oh ... there's light.... Then this must be the darkness ... and there's no time ... not for anything.... No time left ..."
The tree fell silent. Danny cast his eyes around for something to make it talk again. What had it said? The most precious piece of it? The last? He looked down at the stick in his hand. Maybe if he returned the last good piece to the tree, it would have some energy left to speak.
He stepped forward and wedged the stick into the cleft trunk. As soon as his hand let go, the world seemed to fall silent. Birds sang and traffic rumbled along in the distance, but a frozen hush hung about the air.
The tree shook. Danny thought it looked more like a shiver of anger than one of death, but then, what did he know about the body language of trees? Either way, returning the stick didn't seem to have helped.
With a last spasm, the stick fell to the ground and Danny bent to pick it up again. As soon as his fingers touched it, he heard the tree's voice, much fainter this time.
"Idiot boy ... I can't ... You'll have to ... work it out ... but ... why is ... Where is it? Why not ... come ... back ..."
"Work out what?" asked Danny. "What d'you want to get back?"
The tree was losing the last breath of its speech, and the words that followed were said carefully, as if it knew it had no time to think of more impressive ones.
"It's ... Sammael.... He wants ... He'll use sand ... put dreams ... in your mind.... Be careful ... who you ask.... Most important ... most ..."
The last sigh drained from the sycamore tree, and the earth under Danny's feet seemed to swell in one final clench before settling back down into scorched lawn. He looked at the stick in his hand, then put it down and picked it up again. Each time his fingers let go of it, the same hush seemed to fall.
He tried clutching it tightly and saying "hello!" in as clear a voice as he could muster. To which he could have sworn he heard a faint, echoing gasp that rippled for a moment around his feet like the wind swaying through a cornfield. But nothing more.
Danny decided that he'd better tell his dad, who knew about trees. Swinging around, he stopped with one foot half in the air as he remembered. His parents weren't there. And they weren't here, either.
What could have happened? Maybe when they'd gone to look at the storm, they'd been trapped somewhere and couldn't get out.
Maybe they were dead.
No. He shook his head to clear it of the thought. They couldn't be dead. Someone must know where they were.
Perhaps if he told someone else—but he didn't quite like the idea of that, either. Last Christmas, up at Aunt Kathleen's farm, he'd said something about being outside in a storm and there'd been a furious row—Mum going off-her-head ballistic at Aunt Kathleen, and Aunt Kathleen yelling about obsession, and Dad screaming about how she'd get Social Services sniffing round them again, as if last time wasn't bad enough.
Even though Danny's parents sometimes ignored him for so long that he reckoned he could walk halfway to France before they noticed he'd gone, there was something about the idea of Social Services that made him nervous. Sure, Mum was always on the computer, and Dad mostly hung around outside staring at the clouds, and sometimes dinner didn't happen until he was so sleepy that he nearly fell asleep facedown in mashed potato, but at least the things around him were his own. And his parents might be scatty, but they did make sure he had a nice home and clean clothes, so even when dinner was late, at least he didn't have to go to school the next day in the same potato-crusted shirt.
But Social Services would look at his family and see what they didn't do, not what they did, and he had a pretty good idea that they wouldn't like what they saw.
What else could he do? Monday mornings meant going to school. Danny always quite enjoyed them, because they had double art and there wasn't a proper art teacher anymore, so he got to keep his head down and draw whatever he liked while the rest of the class made their phones bark like dogs and tried to climb out the window, then come back in through the door without the substitute teacher noticing. Art was the only class where nobody looked at the clock.
He felt a strong urge to be there, sitting at the quiet table by the window, trying to draw something complicated. He never thought about anything when he was drawing, apart from lines and shadows.
Well, why not? Maybe his parents were just delayed somewhere. They'd probably driven farther than they'd meant to, that was all. They would definitely be back when he came home.
Danny stepped back inside, put the stick on the table, and got himself a bowl of cornflakes. He sat down, but he couldn't manage more than a couple of mouthfuls of cereal before he started to feel sick.
What was that stick? Sitting next to his bowl on the table, it just looked like an ordinary piece of stick. His fingers wanted to reach out and pick it up again, but he was suddenly scared of what else might happen. Would he hear other strange voices, breaking through the silence of the house?
No, of course not. His mind was playing tricks on him. Or someone else was. Yeah, that must be it—his parents liked trying to catch each other out with silly tricks, and they'd just played one on him. That's all it was. A silly trick.
He got dressed and picked up his schoolbag. Some trick. Whatever his parents were doing, it wasn't very funny.
"Bye!" he shouted backwards as he left the house, so that if they were around, they'd know he hadn't been fooled. And as he walked down the path to the garden gate he listened hard for sounds in the house behind him.
But when he turned his head around for a last look, there was still nobody there.CHAPTER 2
The gray lurcher put her head between her front paws and waited. Sometimes there was nothing else to do. The room was dark, her coat did little to protect her from the biting cold, and the air stank of ripe decay.
She'd have watched the clock, but her master didn't hold with clocks. What was the point of time to someone like him?
The crackling of breaking twigs stirred the dog into raising her head. A heavy tread—he had brought someone back with him, then. These days he normally did. And even though he could have kept his journey short and neat, could have spun back into this bitter room with a flick of his wrist, he still preferred walking as much as possible. He said it gave him time to see what life was up to.
The lurcher was ready and standing by the time he ducked through the doorway.
"Another one gone, Kalia," he said, and slung the corpse onto the floor in front of her.
Kalia sniffed at it and wrinkled her muzzle. She was well used to corpses by now, but this one was a young girl, smooth skinned and frail with a stretched face as though she'd struggled in the last minutes of her life.
"Don't turn your nose up, mutt," said Sammael, taking off his long coat.
As he turned to hang it on a peg, the lurcher glanced up at him. When he wore the coat, he could get away with walking among humans—he almost looked like one, if a little too tall and thin, with eyes a fraction too black. But now that he'd taken it off, she could see that his arms were narrow as broomsticks, his shoulders as sharp as wings, and his skin paler than ice.
"And don't stare at me," said Sammael, turning back to the corpse.
"I'm not staring," said the dog. "It's what my eyes look like when they're looking. Oh, but you've been gone so long, I missed you. Why wouldn't you let me come?"
"Some things aren't for dogs," said Sammael. "I had a bit of business to sort out. Your presence wasn't necessary."
"What sort of business?"
Sammael didn't reply. Instead, he rolled up his shirtsleeves and bent over the young girl's corpse, placing his bony palm against her shoulder. For a moment nothing happened, then the girl began silently to disintegrate. Her skin puckered and shriveled, twisting into knotty lumps. The features on her face crawled toward each other and screwed themselves up into twists. Her eyes shrank into raisins, her lips into a tiny walnut.
After a few seconds, she seemed to be weeping through the pores of her skin, but it wasn't water that oozed out. Grains of sand were pushing themselves between the stitches of her clothes and forming little mounds, spreading in a mass over the smooth stone floor.
It took less time than usual. She must have been very small.
Sammael picked up the pile of clothes, shook them out carefully so that each clinging grain was returned to the floor, then chucked them into a corner. He surveyed the sand. A pathetic amount. Hardly worth the effort.
"I should have given her more time," he muttered. "But she didn't think to ask for any. All this one wanted was to be able to slide down a rainbow. Can you believe it?"
"Only that?" asked Kalia. "She didn't ask for anything else at all?"
"Only that," said Sammael. "She could have demanded hundreds of years in exchange for her soul—she'd no idea what it was worth. But she sold it to me in exchange for the power to slide down a rainbow. And then she got to the bottom of the rainbow and fell straight into the middle of the sea. Drowned in minutes."
He looked at the lurcher. Her tail wagged.
"You didn't sell yourself so short, did you?" he said. "You've gotten all you wanted out of me. You could have all the rainbows you like, without giving up a second of your life for them. Here you go."
He stooped down, picked up a couple of grains of the sand, and cast them into the air. A rainbow blazed up along their path, filling the room with light of every color. It hung for a few seconds, caressing the faces of dog and master, then swooped into a corner and exploded into a shrieking fire of emerald green. Sammael watched the fire as it gradually died.
The dog pattered forward and pressed herself against his leg. Fingers like icicles brushed her head.
"Old mutt," he said. "Come on, let's get this lot stored away with the rest. There's enough sand there now to put dreams into the heads of a million creatures."
As Kalia gazed up at his shuttered face she saw a flicker of muscles across his cheeks, pulling his mouth into something that could possibly have passed for a human smile.
"What things they could have done," he said softly. "What dreams I could have given them."
Then the smile vanished completely. "But it's too late now. They should have thanked me while they had the chance. It's too late for them all now."
And he turned away to fetch his brush.
* * *
The strange brush was made of some kind of hair, although the strands were so fine that Kalia's own hairs seemed like fat dreadlocks beside them. It swept up every single grain of sand, so that nothing escaped or was wasted, but she'd never dared ask whose hairs it was made from. Instead she watched as he methodically cleared the floor until the stone slabs were spotless again.
When he'd swept the last of the girl's sand into a box and balanced the box on top of a neat stack, he put his coat back on. The coat smelled of earth, rain, and age.
"Right," he said. "Let's go and see what that storm left behind."
Kalia trotted after him. She had to press herself to his legs while they stepped through the doorway, so that he remembered to reach down a hand and take hold of her wiry hair. Sometimes he went too fast and she didn't get to him in time, then she had to travel alone through places that no mortal creature should ever see, between the solid world of the earth and the high, thin air. They did odd things to a dog, those places. The last time she'd been separated from her master, she'd ended up with purple feet and ivy growing out of her toes and curling up around her legs.
Sammael had laughed and cut off the ivy, but he'd left the purple hair growing on her feet.
"Teach you to meddle, mutt," he'd said. "Teach you to sell yourself into things you've no idea about. Although I suppose the purple does add a certain point of interest to your otherwise dull legs."
She'd tried licking her feet. The purple hadn't budged. Sometimes she looked down at it and thought it might be spreading up her legs, but it was hard to be sure.
No more mistakes, though. She leaned close up to his legs this time. Stretching tall out of scuffed old boots, they were as hard as lampposts.
* * *
By the time they'd walked the entire path of the storm, all the way from the hills where it had gathered to the island where the last raindrops had been squeezed from its clouds, Kalia's purple feet were sore and stuck with thorns. She flopped down in the shade of a bush and began gnawing at her pads.
The bright June sunshine shone above them. They had stopped on a shingle beach, which fell flat and gray back toward the sea. A couple of terns sat dozing over their nests, but nothing else stirred along the beach, apart from the dry wind.
Sammael frowned. He fished out a notebook from his trouser pocket and flicked through it. Its pages were thinner than spider's-web silk.
"The storm should have left another taro behind," he said.
"A taro?" asked the lurcher. "Haven't you picked it up yet? There've been loads of sticks and acorns and things—I thought it was always one of them. ..." Her voice trailed off for a moment, and then, before she could sigh, she said very faintly, "Does that mean we have to go back again and look for it, all that way?"
"Of course not, you fool!" snapped Sammael. "I would have found it if it'd been there!" He ran a finger down the page of writing. "But I suppose one can't always be sure with storms. What a waste of time. Except I did sort out those idiots."
Excerpted from The Book of Storms by Ruth Hatfield. Copyright © 2014 Ruth Hatfield. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Sycamore,
3 The Notebook,
4 A Visit,
5 Behind the Hedge,
6 The Farm,
7 The Acorn,
9 Puddleton Lane Ended,
10 The Life & Works of Abel Sebastien Korsakof,
11 The Dogs of War,
13 The Book of Storms,
14 Into the Woods,
15 The Swallows,
16 The Storm,
19 An Encounter,
The Color of Darkness Preview,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Really liked the book it kept me reading very different and interesting.