“How – how did you spot these?” Jezzle said. Gorlen smiled inwardly at having impressed the boy with his superior knowledge of the swamps, although he did not yet understand exactly what he had found.
Kneeling closer, he saw small swimmers inside each of the spheres. They seemed to sing to him in the silvery light.
He glanced over at Jezzle and saw that the boy was quietly, quickly stabbing the globes with his knife. He had already cut into dozens.
“Fertile ones, and perfectly ripe!” Jezzle said. “If I only had a net to drag them home right now!”
“What are you doing?” Gorlen seized the boy’s elbow, but Jezzle tore away, confused.
“What do you mean? I’m fixing them. I’ll come back tomorrow for the harvest, but I can’t let them grow any larger, can I?”
“Why . . . why not?”
“They’ll be ruined for curing, you idiot!”
“What did you think they were for? I can’t wait to see pa’s face when I bring him here.”
Gorlen remembered the leathery globes Taian had tossed on the smoking fires that afternoon, to give the hides their finish. He’d thought they were vegetables!
Jezzle began puncturing more of the spheres. Gorlen leapt on him from behind, pulled the boy back and flung him down in the mud.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jezzle said, spitting with fury.
Gorlen didn’t answer. He stared down at the swimming shapes trapped in the few undamaged globes remaining. A generation of pure phibs, massacred. Sickness filled him. He rounded on Jezzle, saw a greed much larger than one boy – and held his tongue.
“There’s no time for this,” he said in a deadened voice, seizing Jezzle by his elbow and dragging him to his feet. “It’s more important to get you home safe to your father.”
“You’re no hunter,” Jezzle said.
“Give me your knife.”
Gorlen twisted Jezzle’s wrist till the knife dropped. He stooped to pick it up, then knelt to press the tip against one of the spheres.
“Watch my hand,” he said.
“Your hand – hey, the stone’s nearly gone. What happened?”
“It comes and goes. Now watch and you’ll see why I’m no hunter. Why I cannot kill.”
The knife blade quivered, sending ripples across the wet spherical surface. The small shape inside stirred and seemed to move toward the point, as if it were a parent. Gorlen waited; he pressed slightly, and waited again. Waited for the advance of stone, but felt nothing. Pressed harder, till thick clear liquid began to spill down the blade toward his fingers – fingers that steadfastly refused to turn to stone.
He yanked the knife away, hoping it was not too late. “I don’t understand,” he said. The egg continued to leak.
“Give me that,” Jezzle said, snatching at the knife. He then buried it in the egg and pulled it out again. The swimmer was dead. “You only wounded it, Gorlen. At least be quick.”
Gorlen stared at his hand, the black tip that refused to claim more of his finger.
“You wretched rock,” he whispered. “You gargoyle conscience!”
“You’re right, though,” Jezzle said. “We should get back; these’ll keep overnight.”
This time it was Jezzle who dragged Gorlen to his feet.
“Are you okay? You look sick.”
“I’ll be all right,” Gorlen said.
“I said it before: You’re no hunter.”
The moon dipped below the horizon, consigning them once more to darkness by the time they had reached Dankden from the seaward side. At low tide, Dankden looked like a different town completely. The streets were draining toward the ocean and the swamps; lower tiers of stepping stones and even muddy cobbles were revealed; fish flopped and eels curled in accidental pools. The stilts beneath most buildings were thickly furred with brown and green weeds; clusters of gold bulbs dangled from the pilings; barnacles hugged up tight inside their conical shells, though it did them little good when the harvesters came at them with hammers and tongs. All this was lit – in addition to the lamps – by a leaping orange light that played upon the low clouds, outlining the rooftops, coming from some distant part of town.
It was with a sinking sense of failure that Gorlen recognized the tossing glow. He had seen more than one city in flames.
“That’s coming from the phibby slums,” Jezzle said as they sloshed along. “I knew my pa wouldn’t let them off.”
“It couldn’t have been Clabbus,” Gorlen assured him. “He has enemies, you know.”
“Hunters stick together! Yeeaah!”
Jezzle broke off running toward the center of the conflagration.
Alone, Gorlen moved more slowly, like one doomed. If there was anything he had learned in this life, it was when to leave. He would claim his eduldamer, purchase a new pair of boots, and set out. Perhaps a farewell kiss to Taian, more likely not. Even she – lovely, sensitive girl –tossed living phib eggs on the fire and wondered why each year the swamps held fewer phibs. Nothing he did here would matter in the least. He had not managed even to play the part of a hostage.
There were plenty of folk in the streets; they seemed more merry than concerned, as if the fire were the main event at a festival. The tide would return, and it was starting to rain again. They, at least, were safe.
He asked the way to Clabbus’s house, and eventually found a man who knew the hunter. When he pounded on the outer door, the landlord recognized him from earlier in the evening, and let him in to find his way up the dark stairs which he now knew he would never climb often enough to master.
In Clabbus’s apartment, the smoke-stench of curing hides repulsed him, but he pushed through them in search of his belongings, which he had left near the fireplace. As he straightened, his bags slung over his shoulder, his heart jumped with surprise.
Taian stood in the doorway. She was wrapped in her phib hide, pale face streaked with mud. She seemed shocked to see him.
“I – I’ve brought your brother back,” he said.
“Something horrible has happened!”
“I guessed as much. But Jezzle’s safe. I think he went to find your father.”
Moving like a woman carved of knucklewood, Taian crossed the room and sank down in Clabbus’s chair before the coals.
“We went to the Phibby Inn,” she said. “It was a riot there. Everyone believed the phibs had murdered my father. They were gathering to descend on the halfbreeds, to destroy them in their slums. When we appeared, it should have stopped them; they should have seen how they’d been lied to. But . . . it didn’t even matter. They didn’t want the truth. They wanted to do what they’d been set on all along. We couldn’t turn them aside. They didn’t even care that you and Jezzle might be out there.”
Gorlen sank down next to her. He put his right hand on her neck, barely noticing that even his fingers were flesh now, flesh almost down to their glossy black tips.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I – I came back for some things,” she said. “Then I’m leaving.”
“I understand. Where will you go?”
She shook her head. “I can’t stay here, that’s all I know. Father can live with them or fight them as he wishes. He can take care of Jezzle, in any case. The boy wants nothing but to hunt.” She turned to Gorlen, her eyes wet. “They murdered halfbreeds in their homes, unless they were fast enough to flee to the swamps. But they’re not full phibs, Gorlen! They’re dependent on Dankden. They can’t survive out in the swamps, not for long, not anymore. Even calling them halfbreeds is unfair. They’re people. People like us!”
He pushed back her hood and stroked her hair, at last feeling the warmth in his fingers, flexing them in amazement. If he could only hold onto this feeling forever, the knowledge that he was doing the right thing no matter how hard (although at this moment it felt so easy). . . .
“It’s all right,” he said.
She hid her face in her hands. “I saw – I saw a mother and her hatchlings – I mean, her children. She was so afraid that she was tearing them prematurely from their eggs, giving them the breath of life, and pushing them into the canal, hoping some few of them might swim to freedom. I saw them struggle and choke; they floated past while I stood there, unable to save a one of them.”
“The breath . . . of life?” he said.
She looked at him, as if noticing him for the first time. “Phibs, even halfbreeds, are born underwater,” she said. “They take their first breath from their mother, who carries fresh air just for them, enough to get them to the surface. But these were too young . . . undeveloped lungs . . .”
“Good Goddess,” Gorlen whispered. He could taste the fishy life-giving air again, the breath that had saved him in the root cage, and imbued him with an inner, living map of the swamp. Closing his eyes, he could sense the swamp so near . . . could sense also where it once had been in its primordial state, claiming the very soil where Clabbus’s home now stood. He carried the swamp inside him, as if some compass needle had been activated in his head.
The phibs must have had some homing instinct, a gift from their mothers – would have it even once their home had been destroyed. And now it was his as well, to the limited extent his humanity allowed.
Wherever he went, he would feel the swamp somewhere behind him, dying, doomed, crying out . . . until it was silenced.
And even then, he would hear its murdered ghost weeping.
He opened his eyes when he felt Taian lean against him. She was sobbing. His preternaturally sensitive fingers moved in her hair, feeling every strand. She was cold, and his first impulse was to warm her, but he was colder still, and wet from the swamps. They moved together, closer to the glowing coals.
“I must leave,” she said in his ear. “Before my father returns. I must go now, before I lose my determination.”
“Yes,” he said, but his heart was quickening, and he sensed that hers was too.
“I’ll go with you. I know the roads.”
“No,” she said. “I must go alone. It’s the only way.”
His hands, both warm, began to rove.
“Please, Gorlen. I – I can’t wait. I can’t take the time.”
Gorlen bit back words. He wanted to stroke her, to feel her nakedness beneath her cloak. He wanted the warmth between them to build to a fire; he wanted the time to spend with her, but there was none.
“Please,” she said, but he couldn’t bear to let her go. He reached for her as she spun away; reached, knowing that if he could grab her wrist, she would not resist him. Reached –
And felt his hand turn to stone.
“Ohhhh. . . .”
It was a weary, drawn-out groan.
From across the room, having easily eluded a hand that could not grasp, Taian looked back with concern. “What is it? Gorlen, you understand, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he said, pulling black stone fingers back into his sodden sleeve, hiding his affliction. “It’s nothing. Go, now. I’ll explain to your father as best I can. It’s your choice. He’ll understand, Taian.”
“Go on,” he said. “Quick! While you’re determined!”
Taian smiled, blew him a kiss, and then he heard her on the stairs. He jumped to his feet and ran down the hall to the outer balcony. He watched her walk out onto the street, anonymous in her dark cloak of phib hide, in the rain, clutching a traveling sack. Low-tide was short-lived; already the streets were awash.
“Good luck, Taian,” he said quietly. “May we meet again, when we both have the time.”
A cold gust kept carrying rain over the balcony, but he was already as wet as it was possible to get. He looked at the dried globes stacked by the smoker, and shivered in his soggy cloak of common cloth. Common cloth, yes, but from that moment forward he would never wish for anything finer.
He drew back his damp sleeve and raised his right hand. Obdurate, stony, inky adamant fixed in the act of grasping.
“You fool,” he said, as if it were something apart from himself.
* * *
“Dankden” copyright 1995 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 1995.