Gatha didn’t have to ignore them. It would be like ignoring the sound of one’s own breathing. The calls fit so perfectly into the background that only their absence would cause her to take notice. That morning there was nothing to compete for her attention as she forced her way through the tidal flat.
Her skirts were lifted up, tied to her thighs, keeping her hem free of muck and giving her more freedom to move around the mud bank. She trod with experience, her feet sinking barely passed her ankles.
The mud larks fanned out behind her, tacitly following her path around the silt bank, but each sinking to their knees or further. Their hands darted out and back, pecking at the mud like the gulls their presence displaced into the sky. They came back with tiny objects covered in cloying muck, were shook, inspected, and mostly thrown back. Rarely there would be a flash of yellow or silver and the urchins would drop the treasure into a pocket and the process would begin again.
Gatha’s hands did not dart out and back constantly. When she reached out it was always deliberate, and what she picked up would be carefully cleaned of mud with a nearby pool of water or a cloth for that purpose, and mostly what she picked up would be dropped into her own pockets, though never did they shine or sparkle.
One of the younger urchins, a girl of around seven called Clara, was hopping through the mud towards her, holding her hand above her head as if it might be claimed by the river. Gatha straightened with a cracking of joints and wiped her hands on her skirt.
The girl reached Gatha with a red-cheeked pant. “Found this, mistress. Is it one of the things you want?” She held out her hand with a nugget of hardened silt as careful as if she’d found royal jewels.
Gatha took it. Something cream showed beneath the muck, worn smooth by time and the rivers’ flow. The outer shell still held its form and the honeycombe inside was intact. So, not old enough. Perhaps.
She closed her hands and held them to her forehead. Images of second hand vitality flashed across her mind; of dashes low to the cobbles and chases across roofs and over gutters. She let the thread go before she could see the image of the cat’s death and the headache such images brought on.
The bone was not old, but it had some power. Her eyes creased at Clara and the little girl beamed. “Thank you, child. This will do.” She turned the bone between her fingers and regarded the girl. This was the second time this week the child had found something Gatha could use. “How did you find it?”
“It was just there,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I was walking, looking, and found it.”
“Why were you looking where you found it?”
A shrug. “I was just looking, mistress. And there it was.”
“Well, that was a stroke of luck.” She leaned down and lowered her voice, “In return, five yards behind the boy with the blue cap is purse lost by a young gentleman last week. There’ll be a few coins inside.”
The girl accepted the knowledge solemnly and hopped off through the mud to find her prize. Gatha watched her go. Twice in one week could be coincidence, or it could be something else. She determined to keep an eye on the girl. If she did have any power Gatha would show her how to hide it before the Church could get wind of her.
She slipped the cat bone into her pouch. Ground, it would help ease a fever or tooth ache. It would bring a few pennies. That would do. And then she went back to her search.
The Evenflow’s tide was said to be unpredictable. And she supposed it was, if viewed from the short term. Watched for long enough and a string could be seen across the myriad of islands, and mud banks would be bared across the shore for a few hours before slipping beneath the water for years, or decades longer. That was why the Evenflow was her chosen haunt. It had time to collect what she wanted. Bones of cats, pigs or people; they were good enough. But she hunted the bones of things larger and more ancient. Things old long before the first brick was laid on the first island.
She felt such a thing now. It was close, on this bank. It had lain dormant for a stretch of time so long she had no term to put to it. And she had a scant few hours to find it before the tide changed and the channel rose up once again and the bank be lost for another decade.
While that was an annoyance, she would be able to wait until it rose again. By then perhaps the flow of the water would have brought the bone further to the surface and make it easier to harvest. But she would prefer to have it now.
She bent down and moved on. The power was being elusive and hard to source. She swore she could feel it move beneath the surface. She placed her hand on a pool so gently it barely caused a ripple, and closed her eyes.
No. It wasn’t flowing or moving. She couldn’t find it because it was everywhere. So large she simply could not point and say, “There it is”. That would be like pointing to a rock and saying, “That is the island”.
Excitement filled her. What she could learn from this being which once roamed these shores before there were people to exist give it a name. The feeling a life so big made her giddy. But she would have to work fast. If it truly was this large she would need all the urchins across the bank to help dig it out, dividing it up and watching it while she found a rag and bone merchant willing to rent his cart.
“Mistress! Mistress Gatha!”
She nearly fell into the puddle and turned expecting to see a crowd of children in circle, pointing at a bone as tall as a man growing from the mud.
They all stood in a group, but there was no bone. They all looked down at something just over the edge of the mud banks’ rise. None of them were moved or showed any sign of telling her what they’d found. With a grunt she turned to wade her way over to the group. She made the trip worth it, keeping her senses open to the force below her. The sensation of size insinuated into her mind, never leaving as she waddled. It could be the bone was as long as the mud bank and had been waiting for someone like her; patient, and perfectly preserved in river silt; for generations…. For thousands of years. For longer? Gatha thought that perhaps if the bone proved to be too large she would have to only take half for today, and pack it with clay and river mud and rebury it for next time.
It had waited and age. What were another few years?
Her planning petered out as she reached the group. Whatever had caused them to call her still held their attention so completely none had turned at her approach. They all stood there, looking down into the water.
“What is it, children. We do not have all morning, certainly not today.”
One of the children turned to her then. It was Clara. Gatha was not surprised it would be the young girl who would take the lead, but the look on her face made Gatha pause; it was a look of experience which should never be seen on the face of someone so young. All too often present on the urchins who ran as mud larks, but this one went one step beyond.
Clara took a step backwards, revealing something in the water gently nudging the mud bank as it bobbed with the channel’s flow.
It was a body. Gatha knew this mainly due to the clothes it wore. The trail of buttons down the torso told her it was face up, but what came from the neckline was not something she would ever describe as being part of a human being. It had to have been a face once. Or a whole one. Now one side was a ground pulp of bone and exposed gristle washed milk white by the river, the delineation between the devastated and merely lifeless flesh was almost symmetrical down the face’s centre, leaving the image of a half-full face to ghost in her mind’s eye. The one detail she retained was that the wounds, however gruesome, were virgin. Whatever caused them had left its mark and since then nothing else had added to the damage; no flies, and no pecking gulls. That was the only detail she saw as that was when she had to turn away and gag or risk vomiting over the child in front of her.
It wasn’t the sight which made her choke. She’d seen bodies in more parts than this one, and freshly made. Rather, it was what had done it, not what it had done. A mark had been left on the body, a stink which she could not smell with her nose. It upset her centre and made her want to be sick as if her body was reacting and wanting to purge the evil it sensed.
Evil. That’s what the odourless smell was.
Clara stood beside her, looking concerned, and a little pale.
Gatha spat. “You feel it too, child?”
Clara didn’t answer immediately. She thought quietly with her face giving away nothing of what went on behind it, then said, “I don’t know what it is. I just don’t want to look at that body.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” said Gatha. “I told you to be wary of things washed up on the channel. They can carry things other than we can see. Things that can make a child mighty sick.”
“No, it’s not that, it’s…” Carla ran through her limited vocabulary, searching for the right word. “It… upsets me. But not like that.”
Gatha nodded. She understood too well.
She screwed her eyes shut and counted out three deep breath to force the nausea from her chest. When she opened her eyes again she felt much better.
The children still crowded the shore. One of them had found a stick and was prodding the body ungently, as if they were trying to see if it was truly dead.
Gatha caught glimpses of it between them, trying hard not to focus too much lest the sickness hit her again.
Whatever poor soul it had once been it was beyond any help she could give now, even had she been inclined. She hesitated to imagine how terrified and violent its final moments must have been. More terrifying was what could have done that and left its mark so completely. It could not be human. And it must be in Dunholm.
The thought panicked her.
“Stop that!” she snapped with such vehemence the boy with the stick stopped his prodding and they all looked at her.
“We’re just making sure, mistress,” said the boy. “It wouldn’t do to have him waking up when we’re half way through his pockets.”
“No! No picking, not this one.” He voice was so adamant not a single objection was raised. But she would not risk the chance that whatever had done this had not finished with the man. It may come looking for him, and she wanted nothing of the body around her.
“Get rid of it,” she said. “Push out into the channel. When it’s far enough out throw stones at it to make it go further.”
“Do as I say!”
A few of the children jumped, but they all went and found sticks and rotted planks and began pushing the body away from the bank. Hopefully the tide would catch it and pull it further along the shore, and if there was any luck, perhaps all the way to the Bitten Sea.
She turned and looked up at the face of Foulby. The sun, low in the season’s advance, had swung behind the island’s height, making the sky behind it seem unnaturally bright and pushing the island into the shadows, deepening the dark places until anyone or anything could have been within them and she would not know. The crust of red brick buildings stared down at her and she could not suppress the shiver that rose up her spine.
She did not stay to watch. She made her way across the bank slowly being reclaimed by the channel, and back onto the shore, never once thinking about the treasure which had occupied her world just minutes before.