Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen (Old Kingdom)
Old Marral the fisherman lived in one of the oddest parts of Belisaere, the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom. A proud city with high walls to defend against living foes, and rushing aqueducts to keep out the Dead, one tiny corner of the great metropolis lay outside the protection of both wall and water.
Known to all simply as the Islet, it was a rocky island just beyond the city’s southeast sea tower. Joined to the mainland by a rough stone causeway save at the highest tides, the island was inhabited by the poorest of the poor, the fisher-folk who had lost their boats, or drank too much, or had suffered some calamity that kept them from the city’s more prosperous fishing harbor farther to the north.
No one knew what had caused Old Marral to come to the Islet. He had been there as long as anyone could remember, living in a shack made of driftwood and torn sailcloth, distinguished from the dozen or so other hovels on the Islet only by its doorway, in which a heavy curtain made of hundreds of shark teeth knotted onto a discarded fishing net served as a door.
Old Marral made his living, such as it was, as a beachcomber. He walked around the Islet every morning, and if the tide was out, also went out along the rocks that faced the eastern seawall of the city proper. This could be very dangerous, for the tides in the Sea of Saere came in fast and high. In the old days, when the city walls were kept in constant repair, Marral would have drowned many times. Now, with much of the smooth outer face of the wall eroded, there were hand- and footholds enough to climb up out of the rushing waters, even carrying a small sack of whatever flotsam the sea had carried in on its blue-green back.
One particular morning, the sack held a real treasure.
Marral had thought it was a fisherman’s glass float at first, lost from a net. The morning sun flashed off something bobbing in the water, sending back a greenish glint. But when a wave brought it close enough to snatch, he found it was a squarish bottle of thick green glass, not a float. It was empty, but neither the bottle nor the contents it once might have held were of interest to Marral. What caught his eye was the stopper. Though tarnished with age and immersion, he knew it for silver, and even better, the stopper was secured to the neck with bright wires still yellow and warm, gold resisting all tarnish.
Marral almost cackled as he saw it, but stopped himself. The cackling was an act for the city-folk, the few who thought he was some kind of small-time Free Magic sorcerer who could offer them an easier, and less equitable, path to whatever they wanted than the rigors of Charter Magic or non-magical hard work. The shark-tooth curtain was part of this act, but it was only an act, which delivered a few silver deniers every now and then, from those foolish enough to think a Free Magic sorcerer could set up so close to Belisaere, even if outside the city’s walls and wards.
Hugging his find close, Marral retraced his steps along the wet rocks below the seawall, climbing up and around the deeper pools where the sea swirled dangerously, quick to whisk away and suck under anyone who fell in.
Back in his hut, he thought about what to do with his find, as he cleaned the silver with spirits of hartshorn and turpentine. There were a number of junk merchants on Winter Street who Marral dealt with regularly, but the silver stopper was too good for them, he thought. They’d never give him a fair price, not for something so finely worked. There was delicate engraving in the metal, tiny symbols like the ones he’d seen in a book once, the one from the dead sailor’s pocket. Marral had got a good price for the book, despite it being so heavily water-stained and encrusted with salt.
After a few seconds peering at the symbols on the silver, Marral looked away. They unnerved him, somehow, almost like they were moving. Twitching about. It was the cleaning fluid, no doubt. Fumes.
Marral did not have the baptismal Charter mark, and thus had no connection to the Charter. He could not see the actual Charter marks twisting and moving around the engravings. He could not feel the binding spell that kept the bottle closed, and had done so for almost nine hundred years. Nor could he sense the entity trapped inside the bottle, though he did wonder a little why the glass continued to feel so cold, long after it had come out of the sea.
After he had been cleaning it for some time Marral thought perhaps it would be better to simply remove the stopper, and take it in to a goldsmith in the city. There was no need to take the whole bottle. After all, he’d seen dozens of solid square bottles like this one, and none had been worth more than a copper squid.
It felt like his own idea.
Very carefully, he prised off the first gold wire. His hands hurt as he unwound the gold, burning pains shooting through his fingers. It was the ague of age, he knew, though he’d rarely had it so bad. Marral thought of the goose grease which sometimes helped, but he had none of it, and anyway the pains lessened as the wire came off.
A stabbing pain struck his chest as he pulled the stopper out of the bottle. But he had had such pains before, and simply coughed, knowing it would pass in a moment. And it did, just as the stopper came out with a loud pop, as if the bottle was not empty at all, but contained the finest of the light sparkling wines from Orestery.
Marral held the heavy stopper in his hand, mentally calculating its worth as a lump of silver. It would pay for a new pot of goose grease, a keg of the dark ale he favored, and at least several chickens, a welcome change from a diet of fish and gathered crustaceans.
He was thinking of the chicken when he noticed there was someone else in the hut, though he hadn’t heard the shark-tooth curtain rattle, or even a single footstep on the rocky floor.
Marral’s hand instinctively darted for the gutting knife at his belt, but faltered even as his fingers gripped the worn bone hilt.
The stranger who had appeared so silently, and now sat opposite on a wooden crate, looked strangely familiar, but it was a familiarity only slowly remembered from long ago.
“Greten? But you . . . you drowned . . . nigh on thirty year ago . . .”
The young woman smiled, a brilliant smile, her teeth white and bright even in the shadowed interior of the hovel. Marral couldn’t help but smile back, and stretch out his arms to hug his long-lost favorite sister, even as some part of his mind protested that even if she had somehow escaped the sea, Greten couldn’t possibly look exactly the same as she had three decades gone.
Tears flowed down Marral’s cheeks as they embraced, cutting clear trails through the salt caked on his skin, trickling down to the corners of his mouth. He laughed in delight, at all the goodness in the world, which had brought him not only a valuable silver stopper but also his little sister back from the sea.
The laughter ceased as Marral’s heart skipped a beat and then just . . . stopped.
But he had only a moment of fear and puzzlement, as Greten somehow continued to move deeper into his embrace, disappearing into his flesh.
The old man’s eyes closed, and he slumped on his stool, and would have fallen, save that something moved inside him and kept him upright. Then his heart stuttered into action again, and began to beat more strongly. Color flooded into Marral’s skin, and his eyes cleared. The white flecks in his hair and the stubble on his chin retreated a few inches, giving way to a deep brown not seen for many a year.
“I feel . . .” muttered Marral. He stopped, his voice sounding odd to his own ears. It was stronger, and he could hear more clearly.
“I feel young!”
“Somewhat,” muttered a voice inside his head. Greten’s voice. “I cannot do too much, for we must be careful. But I need you to be strong.”
Marral laughed, a deep, bold laugh.
“Dear Greten!” he exclaimed. “I will be strong! Tell me what you need.”
“First,” whispered Greten, in a voice he alone could hear. “I need to know things. Who rules the Kingdom? How many years have passed since the second Dyran was on the throne? Do the Abhorsens still scour the land against the Dead and . . . others?”
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