IN THE SOUTHERN SLUMS of the great city of Mordew, the air shook to the concussion of waves against the Sea Wall. The sun, dim and grey behind the thick overcast, barely lit what passed for streets, and in the half shadows a womb-born boy, Nathan Treeves, trudged through the heavy mist. His father’s old boots were too big, and his thick, woollen knee socks were sodden. Every step made blisters, so he slid his feet close to the ground, furrowed them like ploughs through the Living Mud.
He made his way along what the slum-dwellers called the Promenade: a pockmarked scar which snaked from the Sea Wall to the Strand, weaving between hovels lashed together from brine-swollen driftwood. Behind him he left his mother and father and all their troubles, and though his errand was as urgent as ever, he went slowly.
In his fists he twisted his pillow case, and his knuckles shone in the gloom.
He was walking to the Circus, that depression in the earth that all desperate slum children made for, where the dead-life grew larger. Here, if fortune allowed, flukes could be found, choking in the Mud. The journey would take him an hour though, at least, and there was no guarantee of anything.
All around, the detritus that insulated one home from another creaked and trembled to the vibrations of the sea and the movement of vermin. Though Nathan was no baby, his imagination sometimes got the better of him, so he kept to the middle of the Promenade. Here he was out of the reach of the tentacled fiends, the grasping claws, and the strange, vague figures that watched from every shadow, though the middle was where the writhing Mud was deepest. It slicked over the toes of his boots, and occasionally dead-life sprats were stranded on them, flicking and curling. These he kicked away, even if it did hurt his blisters.
No matter how hungry he was, he would never eat dead-life.
Dead-life was poison.
The further he walked from his home, the less the relentless drumbeat of the Sea Wall troubled his ears. There was something in the sheer volume of that noise up close which lessened the other senses and bowed the posture, so that when Nathan came gradually onto the Strand where it intersected the Promenade and led toward the Circus, he was a little straighter than he had been, a little taller, and much more alert. There were other slum-dwellers here, too, so there was more to be alert to – both good and bad.
People came to the Strand to sell what bits of stuff they had to others who had the wherewithal to pay for them. The sellers raised themselves out of the Mud on old boxes, and sat with their wares arranged neatly in front of them on squares of cloth. Nathan had no coins, and nothing to barter with, but if he’d had the money he could have got string and nets and catapults and oddments of flat glass and sticks of meat (don’t ask of what).
He hadn’t anything, so he stopped looking and joined the other desolate children, eyes to the floor, watching out for movement in the Living Mud. They slipped and slid their ways down, ever down.
He didn’t recognise any of the others, but he wasn’t trying to – it was best to keep your distance and mind your own business: what if one of them took notice, and snatched whatever was in your bag on the way home?
There were some coming back, bags wriggling, others bags still, but heavy, and a few with nothing, tears in their eyes – too cowardly, probably, to venture deep enough into the Mud. Nathan could have stolen from those that had made a catch, grabbed what they had and ran, but Nathan wasn’t like that.
He didn’t need to be.
He had a plan.
As he got closer, the Itch pricked at his fingertips. It knew, the Itch, when and where it was likely to be used, like the mouth knows to water when food is near, and it wasn’t far now. “Don’t Spark, not ever!” was what his father ordered, and Nathan was a good boy… but even good boys do wrong, now and again, don’t they? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good and bad, anyway, between right and wrong. His father needed medicine, and the Itch wanted to be used…
The Strand widened, the street vendors became fewer, and here was a crowd, nervous, a reluctant semi-circular wall of children, nudging and pushing and stepping back and forwards. Nathan walked towards where there weren’t so many backs and shouldered his way through. He wasn’t any keener than the others, he wasn’t any braver, but none of them had the Itch, and now it was behind his teeth and under his tongue, tingling, and it made him impatient.
The wall was three or four deep and it parted for him, respecting his eagerness, or eager itself to see what might become of him.
He was through and, Itch or no Itch, he stood with others at the edge for a moment.
In front was a circle marked by the feet of the children who surrounded it, large enough so that the faces on the other side were too small to make out, but not so large that you couldn’t see that they were there. The ground gave way and sloped, slicked and churned up, to a wide Mud-filled pit in which they stood, knee deep at the edges, waist deep further out, and at the distant middle they were up to their necks, eyes shut, mouths upturned, fishing in the writhing thickness by feel. Those in the middle had the best chance of finding a fluke – the complexity of the organisms generated by the Living Mud, it was said, was a function of the amount of it gathered in one place – while those nearer the edge made do with sprats.
Nathan took a breath and strode down the slope, the enthusiasm of the Itch dulling the pain of his blisters until he could barely feel them. When he had half-walked, half-slid his way to the shallows he clamped his pillowcase between his teeth, first to protect it from getting lost, but also, later, to stop dead-life finding its way into his mouth.
The Mud was thick, but that didn’t stop it getting past his socks and into his shoes and he had to think hard not to picture new spawned dead-life writhing between his toes.
Deeper and there were things brushing his knees, some the size of a finger, moving in the darkness, and then, occasionally, the touch of something seeking, groping, flinching away by reflex. There was nothing to fear – this he told himself – since whatever these things were, they had no will, and would be dead in minutes, dissolving back into the Living Mud. They meant no harm to anyone. They meant nothing.
When the Mud was up to his waist he turned back to look the way he had come. The circle of children jostled and stared, but no-one was paying him particular attention, nor was there anyone near him.
The Itch was almost unbearable.
His father said never to use it. Never use it. Couldn’t be clearer; so Nathan reached into the Mud and fished with the others. Flukes could be found, he had seen them: self-sustaining living things. If he could catch hold of one, then he wouldn’t have to betray his father. He moved his hands, opening and closing through the Mud, the sprats slipping between his fingers. There was always a chance.
Above, as he stared upward and concentrated on the things below the surface, the slow spiral of the Glass Road showed as a spider’s web glint that looped above him, held in the air by the magic of the Master of this city. If Nathan turned his head and looked from the side of his eyes it became clearer, a high pencil line of translucence leading off to the Master’s Manse. What did the Master think of this place? Did he even know it existed?
There! Nathan grabbed at a wrist’s thickness of something and pulled it above the surface. It was like an eel, brown-grey, jointed with three elbows. Its ends were frayed and it struggled to be free. There was the hint of an eye, the suspicion of gills, what might have been a tooth, close to the surface, but as Nathan held it, it lost its consistency, seeming to drain away into the Mud from each end.
If it had held he might have got a copper or two from someone – its skin good for glove-making, the bones for glue, but it was gone, dissolving into its constituents, unwilling or unable to retain its form.
Now the Itch took over.
There is only so much resistance a boy can muster, and what was so bad? They needed medicine, and he either blacked his eyes or made a fluke, both of which were forbidden. Wasn’t this better?
He licked his teeth, glanced surreptitiously to both sides and put his hands beneath the Mud. He bent his knees, and it was as easy as anything, natural as could be. He simply stopped the effort of stopping it, and the Itch was released. It sent a Spark down into the Living Mud and, with the relief of the urge, a faint, blue light darted into the depths.
Nothing happened for a moment, and then the Mud began to churn, the churning bubbled, the bubbling thrashed, and then there was something between his hands, which he raised.
Each fluke is unique: this one was a bundle of infant limbs – arms, legs, hands, feet – a tangle of wriggling living parts, and when the children in the circle spied it there went a gasp up from those nearest. It was a struggle to keep his grip, but Nathan took his pillowcase from between his teeth and forced the fluke into it. He slung it over his shoulder where it kicked and poked and whacked him in the back as he trudged back to shore.
THE TANNERY was near the Mews, where his parents had their shack, and the whole journey there Nathan shielded the pillowcase from the gaze of onlookers whether they were children, hawkers, or slum folk. This fluke would never live into childhood – it was too corrupted and had no mouth to breathe with, or eat – but that didn’t seem to discourage it; the dead-life in it provoked it to ever harder blows on Nathan’s back, which bruised where they landed.
He came to the tanner’s gate and was glad to drop the bundle on the ground where it twisted and bucked and splashed. The harsh, astringent pools filled with milk of lime made Nathan’s eyes hurt, but when he rang the tanner’s bell the man was there in a shot, as if he had been waiting just out of sight.
He was small, scarcely taller than Nathan, but brown as a chestnut and shiny as worn leather. Without troubling to acknowledge him, the tanner took the bag and opened it. His eyes widened, cataracts showing blue-white in the gloom, and then quickly narrowed again.
‘A limb baby. What do you want for it? I’ll give you twenty-five. Twenty!’
Nathan would have taken ten, but he wasn’t a complete idiot. ‘Fifty!’ he managed, his voice betraying nothing.
Now the tanner threw up his arms in comic dismay. ‘Do you take me for a fluke myself? I wasn’t born yesterday! My ma forced me out before this place was ever thought of. I won’t be fooled. Thirty.’
The thought of what they could buy with thirty copper made Nathan’s mind reel – it was certainly enough for medicine, perhaps twice as much as they needed – but there is something in slum living that trains a boy to make the most of an opportunity. He reached out for the pillowcase. ‘If you don’t want it, I’ll take it to the butcher,’ he said, and pulled.
The tanner didn’t let go.
‘Forty then, but not a brass more.’ He rubbed his sleeve across his lips, and then wet them again, ‘I’ll admit it: I’ve got an order for gloves… but a man’s got make a profit.’
Nathan let go and held out his other hand.
From a satchel at his waist, the tanner took the coins, slowly and carefully, scrutinising each, and biting it, to make sure he hadn’t mistaken one metal for another with his bad eyes. Once the last one was handed over he turned, swung the pillowcase hard against the killing post, and made his way back into his shed.
Nathan cursed, realising too late that the tanner had taken his pillowcase with him.
IT WASN’T FAR home and the money he clutched, twenty to a palm, made him skip, almost run back to the Mews. Wouldn’t they be happy? Wouldn’t she be happy? Perhaps this would be the end of it, all the misery.
He rounded a turn between two shoulder-high piles of broken pallets, and there was his home ahead. It was the same as he left it, except there was a woman leaving, drawing aside the tarp that made the door. She was broad and red-haired and Nathan recognised her immediately – she was the witch-woman who provided cures. Before he could guess at why she had been inside his mother came out.
‘You’ll do it!’ she screamed.
‘I will not!’ The witch-woman hitched up her skirts and set off.
Since she came straight toward him, they both saw Nathan. Whether there is something in the presence of a child that draws arguing adults to a stop is debatable, but they stopped and Nathan, as if he could sense what the source of their disagreement must have been, held out one hand and opened it, so that the coins glinted in the pile they formed.
His mother ran forward, almost insanely eager, her lips pulled back and her hair wild. She spared Nathan one glance, her eyes burning blue, ringed with black, and grabbed the money.
‘You’ll do it!’ She threw the coins at the witch and they fell into the mud at her feet. The woman sniffed and thought and then, slowly, kneeled and picked them up.
‘Whatever you command, mistress.’
THE SHADOWS of the witch woman met in the middle of the sheet that divided the two halves of their shack. Where the two candles made contradictory ghosts of his mother, when she was there – berating his father for his indolence, his impotence and his weakness – which flickered and avoided each other, the two witches came together, their patterns interfering to make a definite shape, dancing. This woman had enough about her to command the light to acknowledge her edges, round and broad and with a gathering of hair that extended her head back as if she had been skull-bound at birth, after the manner of the slum dwellers to the north of the city.
Nathan swallowed and watched, his hands clutching in front of him. At what? The possibility of a cure? The revival of his father? What would that look like? What would that be? Into whom would he be transformed? Nathan did not know – his father had always been ill and there was no-one to make the comparison against.
From behind the curtain came a high and light music, not specific to any instrument but not seemingly a voice. The silhouette worked at something, rubbed something between its palms and directed the contents of that working up and over where Nathan’s father lay. The dust of dry herbs? Pollen? Salt?
Nathan stepped forward – it was easy to make his father cough. It was easy to wake him. Nathan’s mother held him by the wrist and kept him still beside her. Nathan turned and she was staring, as he had been, at the outline of the witch-woman. There was something in her expression, some hopelessness in the set of her brow, something wrong that disturbed him. Did she want this to succeed? Did she want her husband better? It seemed, perhaps, that she did, but also…
The woman clapped her hands and when Nathan turned back she was swaying, muttering, shaking behind the sheet. She stopped and the silhouette breathed, began again, flowed like water from a jug, arms twisting, repeating words under her breath, words which eluded the mind, even though the ear could hear them clearly. Nathan could recognise some syllables by their edges, and the same with the movements of her body, the positions of her hands, some gestures mapped against some sounds.
The light from the candles guttered and flickered, increasing in intensity, and her voice grew louder too, the potency of her spell, the depth of her shadows, the size of her silhouette, a smell, now, of rose petals, of aniseed. Nathan leaned closer, his mother’s hand around his wrist, tighter.
He turned to her. In his heart he said ‘Is it working? Will it work?’ His mother turned away from him.
If there was any reluctance in the witch-woman’s dance it wasn’t visible in the shapes she cast on the sheet. If she was fooling them out of their coins, then she didn’t act as if she was. If anything she moved with an unnerving commitment, a complete lack of reticence, no sense that she cared what anyone thought of her – as if she was dancing for unseen watchers, for magic, for the gods. The shack shook with the force of her heels hitting the earth, the sheet billowed when she span from the waist, rippled when her fingertips touched it, her arms extended, her hair a vague flame in the air around her head. She whirled and span and threatened to bring the fragile integrity of their home down around them. The scent of her sweat overwhelmed the rose petals and her panted exhalations interrupted the incantation of her spells the faster she span, but she didn’t stop.
Just when it seemed she would bury them all in a jumble of wood and iron and junk, she grabbed out at the sheet, clenching it in one fist. She stopped, gasping for breath, her other hand on her knee and behind her, grey and flat and motionless, lay Nathan’s father, his chest unrising, his breath only visible in the dappled shadows his ribs made on the skin between them.
‘It’s no good,’ the witch-woman said. ‘The worms have him, and there’s something protecting them. There’s nothing I can do.’
Nathan’s mother was at her almost before she’d finished speaking, all at once ripping at her throat, scratching at her, kicking.
The witch-woman was more than a match. ‘No refunds!” she shouted, and pushed Nathan’s mother away and held her at arm’s length. ‘I’m sorry. No refunds.’
WHEN SHE was gone, Nathan’s mother rehung the sheet and slunk back to the bed, her spine bowed as if the air was too heavy for it, her shoulders incapable of bearing the weight of her arms. She buried her face in the pillow.
‘Don’t worry, Mum.’ Nathan put his hand on the bed and she edged toward it. ‘We’ll think of something.’
She stopped moving and then sat up. She stared at him directly in his eyes.
“You know what comes next, Nathaniel.’
Nathan shook his head, but it wasn’t a question, and she wasn’t talking to him.
From behind the sheet there came an answering moan. It was nothing recognisable as words, but in it was a great sadness.
‘You know it must be done. If you won’t do it, he has to.’
She was staring into Nathan’s eyes so fixedly that her focus bypassed his face by inches. By feet. She was looking into his father’s eyes, though they were shut.
The moaning grew louder.
‘Yes!’ his mother said, ‘I’m sending him!’
She shifted her gaze and with it she softened her anger until she seemed to see him again.
‘There’s no other way, Nat.’
Nathan didn’t know what she meant, but the moaning was so loud now that it frightened him.
His mother rose to her feet. ‘Tomorrow, you’re going to the Master.’
His father screamed a sound so pained and straining that it sounded like death.
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