Her name was Taian. She and Jezzle lived with their father, an amphibian hunter and dealer in phib hides, in a set of small but thoroughly dry rooms at the top of a high-peaked house where the rain rang loud on every slanted ceiling, but leaked through nowhere. Phib skins hung drying in almost every room, which made an already cramped apartment feel impossibly crowded. From where Gorlen sat by the fire, nursing a mug of warm fermented plapioc, he could not make out all of Taian or Jezzle, though both sat near him in the parlor. They appeared only as fragments between the dangling curled hides. Accustomed now to the warm, somewhat swampy odor of the place, he was content to fill himself with the thick sweet white liquid and listen to the other two talk while his clothes – freshly soaped and rinsed in rain – dried on a rack by the fire.
Metal clattered in the hall; the door slammed and boots came stomping. Jezzle jumped up to greet his father, a tall, broad-shouldered, bearded man who stopped in the parlor doorway and went quite silent and suspicious when he saw Gorlen, dressed only in blankets, reclining in what must have been his own favorite chair.
Gorlen jumped hastily to his feet, but Taian was already explaining. The hunter burst out laughing, and came forward to clap him on the shoulder. “So, young man! Five minutes in Dankden and you’ve already made an implacable enemy! Old Stoag and his cronies will be tracking you down, you’ve my word on it, now that you’ve impugned the comforts of his inn.”
Gorlen wasn’t completely sure the man was joking, although his smile was wide enough. He must have seen Gorlen’s uncertainty, though.
“Ah, relax. That place will collapse under its own soggy weight soon enough, and carry Stoag back into the mire where he belongs. They keep those signs up for a laugh, to watch the faces on any stranger who comes in. You threatened to get between a phib and his amusement, that’s why he pitched you into the tide-flood.”
“A phib?” Gorlen said. “So he’s not completely human, then?”
“Not by half, no; nor his customers. They crawl up from the swamps at high tide and try to lay claim to Dankden once more, with their usual pewling complaints that the town is rightfully theirs. A hopeless bunch, and utterly useless – except for the good skins of their purebreed brethren. Ha!”
And here he thrust at Gorlen a fresh phib skin, still limp and wet with ichor, smelling far fishier than the dried hides hanging throughout the apartment. It was grayish green in color; there were others in similarly muted tones slung over the hunter’s shoulder. He slipped them all off and handed them to Taian, who carried the hides down the hall.
“Take good care of them, girl,” he called after her. “That’s the best lot I’ve hauled in an age.”
He looked toward the chair with scarcely disguised longing, and Gorlen leapt out of the way. “By all means, sit!”
“Ah, well, if you don’t mind . . .”
He sank down on the chair, groaning with relief, and pulled off his sopping boots. These and the rest of his clothes were quickly mounted before the fire; then he wrapped himself in a thick robe that had been warming on a hook beside the hearth. Jezzle appeared with a large goblet of plapioc. The big man sucked it down in a few swallows, then handed it back to the boy, wiping curds from his mustache.
“Another like that one,” he said with a laugh. Then he put out his hand to Gorlen. “I’m Clabbus.”
“Pleased, sir. Gorlen Vizenfirthe is the name.”
Gorlen put out his right hand. Clabbus showed a moment’s surprise, then a lingering curiosity. “Eh?” he said, touching it and then letting go.
“Mind if I have a closer look?”
“Not at all,” said Gorlen.
Clabbus hunched toward the fire, and Gorlen turned the hand palm up, palm down, letting the old man inspect the perfectly rendered patterns.
“Fate lines,” he said after awhile. “I don’t read them, but these look strangely symmetrical. You carved them yourself, I suppose?”
“In fact,” said Gorlen, “those are the very lines I was born with. And you’re not the first to notice their symmetry. Some say they herald great luck, others an evil destiny. So far both prophecies have proved equally true. Half the time good luck delivers me from some dreadful end into a pleasant one, much as your daughter rescued me today; the rest of the time, I seem pitched from relative comfort into darker adventures. Safe decisions lead me into awful trouble, and only the riskiest endeavors ever seem to deliver me to anything like a moment’s peace.”
“Peace?” said Clabbus. “Most of us are too busy making a living. I notice your instrument case. . . .?”
“That is my living.”
“Is it a good one?”
“Well, I have no house – “
“This shabby flat is rented, my boy! What do I own?”
“– and no family.”
“Ah. Well.” Clabbus blinked sadly, in sympathy.
“And what friends I’ve made are scattered far and wide; some of them no doubt rue the day that brought me into their lives, and celebrate the day that carried me off again.”
“Surely that won’t be the case with us. Jezzle, another plap’ for Gorlen Vizenfirthe as well!”
The boy had anticipated his father’s request. For a time they sat sipping together by the fire. Jezzle brought a tray of spiced meat and pickles for his father, then sat by the chair and asked about the day’s hunt. As Clabbus described events in the swampy reaches outside Dankden, Gorlen found his mind wandering to Taian, whom he could hear humming down the hall. He pulled on his warm, dry clothes and followed the sound of her voice until he reached a closed door; he rapped lightly and passed through.
He found himself standing on a covered balcony, above the rushing street. He habitually checked the rooftops across the way, some taller than this one, all of them lacking any but the commonest masonry and decorative plasters. There was nothing like a gargoyle anywhere in sight.
A huge stove burned in one corner of the balcony, smoke fuming from a perforated pipe that curled from the chimney. Taian was trimming the hides and hanging them in the gouts of smoke, which then escaped around the edges of the eaves. A heap of slimy globular vegetables filled a half-keg in the corner, and every now and then Taian reached over, plucked one up, and tossed it into the stove, where it exploded wetly, releasing a strong perfume that altered the color and consistency of the smoke for nearly a minute.
“Essential to curing the hides,” she explained. “Otherwise they crack and crumble and smell terrible. They won’t repel water for long, either.”
“Fine rainwear your family makes,” Gorlen said. “I wish I had such a cloak myself. My common clothes are soaked right through in a strong shower.”
“Well,” she said coyly, “perhaps something could be arranged.”
“I don’t wish to take advantage,” he said, moving closer to her on the balcony.
“No more than you already have, you mean?” she said, whirling away from him to gather another batch of skins.
“Is this your livelihood?” he asked, letting his hands fall.
“For the moment. Curing hides, stitching cloaks, and looking after my brother. I wanted to be a hunter like my father, but until Jezzle’s old enough to care for himself . . . I’m stuck here. Father used to take me with him into the marshes, to watch the boat and help keep the lines clear while he dived; but since our mother died, I’ve had to stay home. With my luck, it will be Jezzle who ends up the hunter; I’ll have spent my youth and strength on domestic chores.”
“I doubt that,” Gorlen said. “You’re young and strong enough to be a hunter when the time comes.”
“You think so?”
“Well,” he said, smiling, “when I remember how swiftly you got the raft to me this afternoon, and hauled me aboard – I think you could do anything you like. And Jezzle looks like a fast-growing lad. He’ll be ready for the swamps before you know it.”
“I hope you’re right. But really you know nothing of our way of life. You’re only guessing.” She leaned against the balcony rail, gazing up at him, a wistful look in her eyes.
“At the particulars, yes,” he said. “But I’ve traveled so widely that I think mine is an educated guess.” He put his left hand on the rail beside her, leaning closer. She was warm from the stove; he was close enough to feel that much.
“Are you an educated man, then?”
“Only in the ways of the world,” he said.
Her eyes closed. Now he could kiss her.
At that moment, shouts rose from the street – a chorus of gravelly voices that sounded as rough as the rain. Gorlen was inclined to think it a random rabble, nothing to interrupt his pursuit of Taian’s lips. But her eyes leapt open and she spun away with an angry cry: “No! Not again!”
She pushed through the door, calling for her father, leaving Gorlen nearly tipping over the railings into the rain. Saving himself from a headlong fall into sloshing streets, he stared down at a multicolored mob that had gathered on the landings and stepping stones across the street from Clabbus’s high house.
He couldn’t quite hear what they were calling nor could he imagine why they were directing their energies at this particular balcony. Like Stoag and his ungainly customers, these were lumpy and misshapen folk, albeit many were brightly colored in orange and yellow and vivid green. Gorlen realized with some surprise that these brilliant vestments were their own skins.
Clabbus appeared at his side. “Where are they – oh! Leave off pestering my family!” he hollered down at the crowd.
“What about our families?” one called back – though it was hard to tell which.
“Mine’s an honest living on land that’s rightly ours!”
“Rightly yours? You come into our very dens – trapping and killing!”
“Bah, nonsense! Go or I’ll have the guards here in a moment!” He turned to the door, where Taian stood glaring at her father for no reason Gorlen understood.
Jezzle tried to peer out past her, but Clabbus pushed them both back inside.
“What do they want now?” Taian asked.
“Never you mind. Let’s go in, Gorlen. This will take care of itself.” From the back of the crowd, hidden till that moment by an overhanging eave, came a wailing woman, carrying in her arms a large bundle. In the dripping rain and evening murk, Gorlen could hardly see what it was, although she lifted it up for their inspection.
“Look what you’ve done!” she cried. “In what way is this rightful?”
She slipped on the stones and went down weakly, dropping her bundle. As it flopped to the hard surface, it sprawled out in full form. Gorlen saw a raw, oozing figure, about the size of a child, but mottled and marbled with streaks of gray and blue and yellow. Gorlen heard Taian gasp; she had come up next to him at the rail.
“I know not what you mean,” Clabbus called, “nor do I care to see another rotting phib carcass after the day I’ve had.”
The woman was unable to answer; her neighbors helped her to her feet, and rescued her bundle. One of them turned his face up to the balcony.
“Another carcass? This was her only child.”
“Father!” Taian said.
Clabbus turned quickly and grabbed his daughter’s arm, pushing her toward the door. Jezzle jumped back as they rushed through it.
“Liars,” he said. “That’s a common phib. If it’s mine at all, I caught it in the swamps. They’re trying to start a riot, that’s all.”
“You rob our very clutches!” came a cry behind them, cut off as Clabbus slammed the door.
“I’ve had enough of them,” Clabbus swore as he stormed down the hall, urging his children ahead of him. “Every week they’re noisier, more insistent. As if things haven’t been hard on everyone.”
“Far harder on the phibs,” Taian said, pushing aside hides as they returned to the parlor.
Clabbus dropped down in his chair and swept his thumb across his dinner plate to wipe up the last bits of grease. “True enough. The hunting’s nothing like it used to be out there in the swamps, not like when I was a boy. All Dankden is hurting. Those halfbreeds blame their hardship on us hunters, when we’re the only ones who ever brought a damn thing to this sodden place.”
“There was nothing here before we came,” said Jezzle sternly, echoing his father’s tone. “Nothing but swamps and marsh and knuckleroot trees, and dumb phibs everywhere.”
“Don’t speak badly of the phibs, boy. They’re your only honest living.”
“But pa, what they call us in the streets –”
“That’s the halfbreeds – it’s the human in them saying that. A phib is but an animal, neither good nor evil apart from the quality of its skin. And everything you have you owe to their hides.”
This settled, Clabbus sat himself down and crossed his hands, scowling into the fire. Taian and Jezzle retreated, and Gorlen thought it best to follow.
“Well, that’s another evening spoiled,” Taian said as they went into the kitchen.
“I’m going to look and see if they’re still in the street,” Jezzle said mischievously.
“Don’t make things worse,” Taian warned him. “Father wouldn’t like it.”
“He’ll never know. Someone needs to keep an eye on them, make sure they don’t try setting fire to the house or something wicked like that.”
“Watch them from the balcony if you must,” she said. “But don’t go near them – especially not now!”
When the boy was gone, Gorlen watched Taian cleaning up the dinner plates, rinsing them under a stream of water that ran through pipes from the roof.
“What brought you to Dankden?” she asked.
“I’m looking for a gargoyle,” he said, nervously stroking his stone hand. “Where does your father hunt?”
“Far out in the marshes. The phibs make their homes in underwater caves beneath the knuckleroots. It’s dirty, dangerous work – diving in the mud flows, feeling your way to an entrance, then climbing up inside to face them down in their own dens.”
“And are they savage fighters?”
She shrugged. “As to that, you will have to ask my father to show you his burn-scars. The slightest touch of their skin is enough to sear holes in human flesh. My father has writhed for weeks, in agony from an amphibian’s caustic hug.”
“And yet you wear these skins with no discomfort. How is that?”
“Only the strong, mature phibs manifest the poison coat. Those bright colors you sometimes see in halfbreeds are about all they retain from their full phib ancestors. We stay away from mature hides – they’re worthless for the trade. Only immature or senile hides are really suitable. It takes several years for a phib to come into full poison, and toward the end of their life, well – I guess nature no longer cares whether they survive.”
“So in other words, the ones you hunt are defenseless.”
“You wouldn’t say that were you to come up in one of their dens in full darkness, not knowing where you stood or how many surrounded you, or the color of those that waited . . . .”
Gorlen shuddered. “It must take a brave hunter.”
“Yes, especially now that the phibs are so few. Once the swamps were hopping with them. Now the ones that remain are more clever than ever, and must be tracked diligently, often deep into the knuckleroot groves. My father has been weeks on the trail of the hides he brought home today.”
“Must be quite an art to it.”
“And a science, yes. Now excuse me – I can’t leave the new hides hanging outside any longer.”
“I’ll come with you,” Gorlen said. “In case the mob is there.”
The rain had let up when they emerged. The cloud cover was full of ragged holes through which starshine and the glow of the deep blue sky bled down on the black-running streets. There was no sound except the isolated drip-drop of things drying out, and the steady wash of the current. That, and Clabbus snoring in the parlor.
Gorlen looked over the railing and was astonished to find that the gathering across the way had grown in size, though not in volume. In the clearing night, the vigil was eerily still. The halfbreed phibs crouched down to watch the house – this very balcony. While Gorlen spied upon them, a little candle sprang to life and was used to light a second wick; each of this pair touched two more, and the starry flames spread until there were dozens down there, and that many again flickering on the turbulent face of the watercourse.
Gorlen saw a shadow pass across the reflected flames, towing ripples behind it.
It was a very small boat, unlit, with one small figure paddling. It glided near the edge of the gathering, and suddenly he heard a voice he knew – “Phibby vermin! Stay in your dens!”
At the same time, the rower flung something wet into the crowd. With the splatter, numerous flames were extinguished, and many voices began to swear and shout.
“I hope I’m wrong,” Gorlen said to Taian, who was gathering the smoky cloaks, “but isn’t that Jezzle down there?”
Taian gasped and flung herself to the rail. “No!”
The waterway was suddenly boiling around the small craft, as mourners dropped their candles and leapt into the street. New cries joined the curses – the shrieks of a boy in trouble. The boat rocked and tipped, rolling completely over and up again. Jezzle coughed out a bubbling yell, but his boat rolled again, silencing him. This time when it righted itself, the compartment was empty.
Gorlen saw the paddle sucked away, spinning slowly down the street.
“Jezzle!” Taian screamed.
She ran back into the hall and crashed into Clabbus who was coming up from shallow sleep. He grabbed her by the shoulders – “What is it? Where is he?”
“In the street,” she answered. “They’re drowning him!”
Father and daughter, utterly familiar with the stairs leading from their flat, left Gorlen behind; he picked his way cautiously down through mold-smelling dark, clinging to the smooth stairrails with his flesh hand. By the time he reached the street, the commotion had spread to both sides of the avenue. The candles across the way were scattered and far fewer; those who carried them stood uncertainly at the water’s edge, outnumbered by many clearly human shapes, rushing back and forth. Lamps were lit and hoisted on poles above the water, and swept back and forth to light the surging street. One lamp lit a phib-skin coracle sculling about in the middle of the avenue. In it, Clabbus stood shouting while Taian paddled and poled, moving swiftly here and there. Finally their boat touched the far bank, and Clabbus leapt out.
Of what ensued, Gorlen could make out only the very tips of raggedly shouted sentences. Several other boats were quickly dispatched downstream; people ran from stone to stone, calling and casting their lights over the water. It had all happened so quickly. . . .
Gorlen could find no place for himself in all this. He noticed that those of amphibian ancestry soon vanished completely, which seemed wise now that the decks around Clabbus’s building were crowded with a collection of strong, scabby characters dressed almost exclusively in heavy-duty phibwear. From the crinkled burnmarks on their faces and arms, which they wore like the emblem of their guild, he guessed these were hide hunters, Clabbus’s peers. They seemed to speak a secret language, and more than one eyed him suspiciously where he leaned against a post in a shaded corner. It was not until Taian and Clabbus returned in the coracle, towing the boy’s empty craft behind them, that they raised their voices.
The hunter looked shaken and weary – aged by years in the space of an hour. As he stepped onto the bank, supported by a white-faced, grim-mouthed Taian, the other hunters surrounded him. Gorlen heard them offer both sympathy and the promise of vengeance. Neither evoked any response from Clabbus.
Taian led him to a bench against the wall, seated him, and turned to look back blankly at the water.
“What can I do, Taian?” Gorlen asked.
It took a long time for her eyes to focus on him. “Nothing. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Someone, at that instant, brushed up behind Gorlen from the dark edge of the river – someone dripping wet, yet burning. Gorlen pulled his arm away with a hiss, the skin searing, and turned to see a face of incredible virulence passing him, pushing into lamplight. It was more phib than man, by far: orange mottling on a blue face, vivid streaks and yellow stripes with points of inky, glistening blackness.
Every hunter stared at the phib, and he saw on their faces everything from terror and rage to frustrated lust. No doubt they wished they could have harvested and worn the bright mature colors. The creature stopped before Clabbus and stood looking down at him from a proud height. When it spoke, its words were clear human speech, though somewhat frothy with mucus or mud.
“If you want your boy,” it said, “you must come to the place where you murdered my own.”
Clabbus leapt to his feet. “I take my hides from the swamp!”
The phib put out one lethal hand, held it inches from Clabbus’s mouth. The hunter did not shrink away, but he kept his silence.
“Your son is not in the swamp,” the creature said. “I repeat, you will find him where you took your last haul.”
Clabbus and the phib stared eye to eye for several seconds, and then the phib turned and strode toward the street. At the edge of the deck, he leapt; the mud swallowed him.
“Oh, Destroyer,” Clabbus swore. “What now? The phib’s insane. The whole damned race of them – “
“But Father, Jezzle’s alive!” Taian’s face was bright again. “Somewhere, they have him!”
“Yes, girl, yes, yes – but he could be anywhere.”
The other hunters, tearing their eyes from the mud, moved closer to where Clabbus and Taian stood. They were full of advice.
“It’s a trap!” “They’ll lure you into the swamp! . . . I know that phib – let me hunt him down!”
“It makes no sense,” Clabbus said. “None at all.”
“Father,” Taian whispered. But he ignored her, swallowed up by his associates, each of them presenting a plan. She moved toward Gorlen. “Let’s get him inside – this is not what he needs.”
Gorlen took one of Clabbus’s arms and Taian took the other. “Good people,” Gorlen said, “fine hunters, I am sure Clabbus appreciates all your wisdom and warnings.” He and Taian began to draw her father toward the door. “And he will no doubt call on all your talents to assist him when a course of action has been decided. But for the moment, please, leave a father to his grief. I thank you.”
With that, they drew him backward through the door into the building; Gorlen slammed it quickly, cutting off the expected quizzical cries of, “Who the hell are you?”
The landlord stood in the hall, eager to keep all others out. He latched the door and Taian thanked him. They headed toward the stairs.
“Insane,” Clabbus kept saying. “He’s dooming my son through his madness – my son! I did nothing to him! He’s not a pure phib! He’s not what I hunt!”
“Father,” Taian said, “please be quiet and listen. Listen to me now, and you’ll hear what you know to be true, though I have never yet heard you admit it. But tonight you will admit it – or else lose your son. Father?”
“I’m listening,” he growled. They had reached their landing, and reentered the apartments through the open door. It was cold in the house, for a wind blew down the hall from the balcony. Drying hides fluttered and the smoke of the curing stove curled in the corners.
Gorlen went to close the balcony door. Returning to the parlor, he found Taian stroking her father’s hair, kneeling before him while he sat in his chair by the fire.
“You know it is true,” she said.
“I know no such thing. Those are rumors the halfbreeds spread to cause riots and discontent. They want only chaos and bloodshed and the wreck of Dankden.”
“Father, I’m telling you, friends of mine have witnessed certain hunters at this evil work – men you know, men you grew up with, men you call your brothers. That’s why you refuse to face the truth.”
“Don’t be so stubborn! I’ve tried to open your eyes, but . . .”
“They’re right! It’s a trap! If I were to go where that phib implies, it would only be a trap!”
“Maybe they want you to see with your own eyes, father. See what some of us have known for years now.”
“I won’t hear it,” he said.
She rose in a fury and turned to Gorlen. “He will hear it. He’s heard it before. There are hunters he knows quite well, men I once called uncle, men who disgrace their calling – who mock the art and science of it alike. Men too lazy or ignorant to track the phibs in the swamps, or trap them in their dens. Since the phibs have thinned away, and the living has become a hard one, there are men spoiled by so many fat years in Dankden that they no longer bother to venture into the knuckleroot groves.”
“Don’t listen to my daughter,” Clabbus said, but his heart was not in his voice. “It’s madness.”
She lowered her voice, clenching tight to Gorlen’s black hand. “Yes, it is madness. These men hunt in Dankden, Gorlen. In the slums, the poor dens at the edge of town, in the grottos where the young and senile are often left to fend for themselves. These so-called hunters prey on the halfbreeds. Half human! Our kin!”
“No, no, nooooo,” Clabbus said, as if he were weary of denying it.
“Father, you know it is so. What of the body we saw tonight? The very mother who bore that child carried the evidence here for you to see. She was no purebreed phib.”
“But I didn’t slay that child!” her father said with a racking sob.
Taian only stared at him and did not answer. When he slumped, face in his hands, she glanced sidelong at Gorlen. He moved out of the parlor, and a moment later she followed, shutting the door behind her.
“He must admit to himself what he’s long suspected,” she whispered. “But he’s begun to do it, and I’m proud. Now he will do what needs to be done.” She clenched Gorlen’s hand. “Jezzle will be returned to us.”
“I wish there was something I could do,” he said. “As a stranger here, I–”
“As a stranger, you make me see Dankden through your eyes. There’s a sickness here which must be cured before it kills us all.”
“Whatever you may need me for, please, rely on me,” he said.
She started to take his hands, both of them, but at that moment they heard a groan from beyond the door. It opened and Clabbus appeared, all weakness banished from his eyes.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll talk to them. I’ll make them take me where they went today.”
“I know this is hard for you,” Taian said.
“No . . . no, it is suddenly very easy. The fact that none of them has come to me, none has offered to take me to the place . . . they are disgusting to me now. They know where my boy is hidden, but they say nothing, more concerned with protecting their pathetic and illegal trade. I will find it very easy to convince them now.”
He stalked past them down the hall, and Taian turned to look at Gorlen, her eyes flashing with pride. “You see?”
“Come along!” Clabbus called. “Your brother’s waiting!”
Taian threw her arms around Gorlen, and then released him, running. Once again he was left to find his own way down the stairs.