|29th September 2011, 06:31 AM||#1 (permalink)|
Join Date: Nov 2004
Blog Entries: 17
Sample Chapter -- GOBLIN MOON
In which a Discovery is made.
The moon wallowed, pale and bloated, on the horizon. The tide, running abnormally high even for this time of Iune's near approach, had turned; no longer reversing the river's natural flow, it swelled and accelerated the headlong rush of waters down to the sea. Oars creaked in rusty oarlocks as a flat-bottomed rowboat carrying a grizzled old man and a sturdy youth headed across the current, pulling for the dark western shore.
The old man sat on the stern thwart, scanning the river, while the boy rowed. At first glance, they might have been mistaken for sea-faring men, for they dressed much alike, in cloth caps and long full-skirted coats of some rough fabric so worn, patched, and stained that it could no longer be identified; they wore their hair in short tarry pigtails, sailor-fashion. But their pale faces gave them away, and their wide dark eyes, like the eyes of some nocturnal bird of prey. They were river scavengers, Caleb Braun and his grandnephew Jedidiah: men who slept by day and worked at night, rowing out on the river after dark when the fishing scows, barges, and pleasure craft that plied the river Lunn by day were all tied up in dock.
Near the middle of the river, Caleb reached out with the gaff hook to snag a piece of floating wood. It proved to be a piece of decorative molding depicting one of the Seven Fates, a gilded figure like to a naked man with outstretched eagle's wings sprouting from its shoulders. The gold paint was beginning to flake away, giving the features a leprous cast, but the wood was still sound. With a grunt of satisfaction, Caleb dropped the molding in the bottom of the boat. When they reached quieter water near the shore, Jedidiah rowed upstream, turned the boat, and started across again.
"Upriver!" Caleb's hoarse warning barely allowed Jed time to reverse the stroke of one oar and turn the boat so that the bow took the impact. There was a dull thud and the boat rocked wildly as something heavy glanced against the bow and scraped along the side. Jed caught only a glimpse of a blunt-ended shadow riding low in the water and a gleam of moonlight on ornate brass fittings, before the current caught the coffin and sent it bobbing on ahead.
"Pull, lad, pull," Uncle Caleb called out. "Blister me, we'll lose it, you don't move sharp!"
Jed plied the oars frantically, spinning the boat one hundred and eighty degrees, then rowing with all his might to get down-stream of the coffin. Then it was Caleb's turn to move swiftly, using the gaff hook to draw the long black box closer, then tying ropes through two of the handles.
With the coffin securely in tow, Caleb sat down again, rubbing his hands on the sides of his thighs. "Ebonwood, by the look of it, and see them fancy handles? Some fine country gentleman, or a baron or a jarl inside, maybe. Should be money and jewels as well."
Jed nodded glumly. If not gold coins or a jeweled brooch, the long black box would likely contain something of value. Yet at the thought of opening the coffin and claiming those valuables, he could not repress a shudder.
"You got no call to be so squeamish," snorted Caleb. "You was bred for this life, which is mor'n I can say for some of the rest of us. You got no call to quake and rattle your teeth at the sight of a box of old bones."
Jed knew it was so. Just about as far back as he could remember, he had been accompanying his granduncle on these night-time expeditions. But even before that (as Caleb was fond of reminding him) he had been a dependent of the river and the tide. The very cradle that had rocked him as a baby was constructed of planks from the wreck of the Celestial Mary; his first little suit of clothes—in which he had amazed the other urchins, in velvet and lace—his mother cut from the cloak of a drowned nobleman. And much of the food and drink which nourished him since had been purchased with deadman's coin.
Old Lunn, she was a capricious river, as Jed well knew: restlessly eroding her own banks, making sudden leaps and changes in her course, especially upriver in the country districts where there were no strong river walls to contain her. Swelled by a high tide or by the rains and snow-melt of Quickening, she swept away manors and villages, churches and farmhouses, crumbled old graveyards and flooded ancient burial vaults, dislodging the dead as ruthlessly as she evicted the living. No, the Lunn respected no persons, either living or dead, but the crueler she was to others, she was that much kinder to men like Jed and his Uncle Caleb.
For by river-wrack and by sea-wrack brought in by the tide, off goods salvaged from water-logged bales and salt-stained wooden chests, by an occasional bloated corpse found floating. with money still in its pockets, the scavengers gleaned a meagre existence year 'round, and—especially when the full moon brought high tides and other disturbances—were sometimes able to live in comfort for an entire season off the grave offerings of the pious departed.
Despite all that, Jed always felt a cold uneasiness robbing the dead.
"Willi Grauman opened a coffin once—found the body of a girl inside: her hair down to her feet and the nails on her hands mor'n a foot long, and the box all filled with blood—Willi says she was fair floating in it." Jed spoke over the continued creaking of the oars. "It weren't a natural corpse at all, it was a blood-sucker. Willi slammed the lid down, and—"
"Willi Grauman is a liar. I thought you knowed that," said Caleb, speaking with calm authority.
Jed hunched one shoulder. "Erasmus Wulfhart ain't no liar. He says his granddad opened a box once, and there weren't no body at all, just a white linen shroud and a great heaving mass of worms and yellow maggots—one of them worms crawled out and got into old Wulfhart's clothes, and while he slept that night that worm ate a hole right through his leg: flesh and bone and all. Erasmus seen the hole hisself, or the scar, anyways, and the old man limped to the end of his days."
"I heard another story how Karl Wulfhart lamed his leg, and it weren't nearly so romantic," Caleb replied coolly. He reached into a pocket somewhere inside the capacious folds of his coat and removed a long-stemmed pipe. Reckoning it was time for a change of subject, he said: "Heard there was a quake up-country. Mayhap we're not the only ones in luck this night."
When Iune drew near the earth in her elliptical orbit, the unstable country upriver was prone to seismic tremors and quakes, and sometimes it was the agitated earth, not the river, that leveled cities and towns and forests, or, in a ghastly reversal, swallowed the living as it spewed forth the dead.
"Oughtn't to speak of luck afore it's been proved good or ill—nor afore we've learned if our fine country gentleman took a notion to curse his grave goods," Jed muttered. He remembered a time twelve weeks past, in the season of Frost, when old Hagen Rugen had come into possession of a pair of solid silver candlesticks, the grave offering of a rural parson—and died not three days later of the Horrors.
"Superstitious foolery," said Caleb, as if he could read Jed's thoughts. "Hagen Rugen was a drunk and guzzled hisself to death on the money he made off them candlesticks. 'Dead men's coin ain't no worse than any man's,' " he quoted.
Jedidiah set his jaw. Uncle Caleb was a fine one to scoff at superstition. Wasn't it "superstitious foolery" that brought Caleb so low in the first place—him and that old madman at the book-shop?
"Aye, I know what powers there are to bring a man to ruin—and how he may bring his own self low with foolish schemes and crackbrained notions." Caleb spoke again as if guessing where Jed's thoughts were leading him—which in all probability he was, having a knack for that sort of thing. "What man knows better than me?"
Caleb stuck the pipe in the corner of his mouth. "I've lived off this river for nigh fifty years—a hard life, some would call it, but I never took no harm from it, though I took silver and gold from the dead as often as I could. No, and I never seen no bloodsuckers nor bonegrinders, neither. But when I lived in a fine mansion, having a respectable post as servant to the family of a jarl—and was more than a servant, was friend and confeedant to the son of that noble house—then I knew something and experienced something of Powers and Intelligences, and all the evil things that can blight a man's heart, and twist a man's soul, and dog a man's footsteps wheresoever he might choose to go, and all with no other object than to bring him down to Ruination!"
Caleb nodded emphatically, took the pipe out of his mouth, and tapped it on the side of the boat as if for further emphasis. "When you've seen and done and suffered as much as I have, lad, then you'll be fit to say what's superstitious foolery and what's just plain TOM-foolery. Until then, you'd do well to let yourself be guided by wiser heads."
Jed said nothing, but continued to row.
* * *
Jed tied up at a wharf on the eastern bank, just below a tavern known as the Antique Squid. The upper stories of the tavern were dark, but the windows on the lower floor cast forth a welcoming glow of orange firelight, and the strains of a lively jig played on the fiddle and hurdy-gurdy drifted through an open door.
He scrambled out of the boat and climbed nimbly onto the stone pier. Caleb followed, his movements slow and stiff. They used a stout rope and an ancient winch to haul the coffin out of the water.
At the patter and scrape of approaching footsteps, Jed whirled around just in time to spot two furtive figures emerging from the shadows near the river wall. He reached for the gaff hook, ready for a fight. But then a familiar voice hailed him from the direction of the Squid, and two burly figures in dark cloaks and tricorn hats came out of the tavern. The footpads melted back into the darkness, at the approach of the Watchmen.
"Seems we're in luck." Matthias, a big, coarse-featured redhead, nodded in the direction of the coffin.
The men of the Watch claimed a share of everything the scavengers brought ashore in Thornburg, offering in return their protection against the thieves and ruffians who inhabited the wharf at night, and also against the hobgoblins and knockers who lived in warrens inside Fishwife Hill and crawled out through the sewers when the moon was full.
This same Matthias, Jedidiah suddenly recollected, had claimed a silver-plated figurine from the ill-fated Hagen Rugen—which argued in favor of Caleb's contention that deadman's plate and coin were as good as any man's. It stood to reason that if the parson had cursed the candlesticks, he had not neglected the rest of his hoard, yet here was Matthias, as big and as ugly as ever, a full two seasons after Hagen's demise.
Caleb began to unfasten the latches and bolts that sealed the coffin. Still thinking of all the gruesome tales he had repeated earlier, Jed felt that cold feeling grow in the pit of his stomach. Walther and Matthias, each at an end of the ebonwood casket, lifted the lid.
"Sol burn me black!" Walther exclaimed, but the others stared silently, rendered speechless by surprise.
The body of a man in antique dress, and what appeared to be a perfect state of preservation, lay inside. He was just past his middle years, with dark shoulder-length hair and a neat beard streaked with grey. His eyes were sewn shut and his limbs decently composed for burial, but a faint bloom was in his cheeks and a fresh color was on his lips, and the whole effect was so entirely lifelike that it seemed as though he had recently come from the hands of a high-class embalmer; yet he was dressed in the style of a scholar of the previous century, in a dark velvet tunic and breeches, a black silk robe, and a wide collar of delicate white lace. A pewter medallion lay on his breast, attached to a broad scarlet ribbon around his neck, and instead of the usual grave offerings of gold and silver, he had been buried with his books, ancient volumes bound in crumbling leather, with curious symbols stamped in gilt upon the covers. On one appeared the same mysterious sigil that was stamped on the medallion: a two-headed serpent devouring a fiery disk that might have been meant to represent the sun.
"Burn me!" Walther exclaimed again. "If that ain't an ugly jest—to tog a man in fancy dress, pack him up with a load of dusty old books, and tip him into the river apurpose!"
Matthias, recovering, made a sign against bad luck. To rob the dead was one thing—an act, arising as it did from sound financial motives, which was instrumental to the advancement of the living—but to make a mockery of the rite of burial and with no discernible notion of profit, even to men as rough and profane as the two constables, this was a shocking impiety. And by the look on Caleb's face, the expression of a man in the grip of some tremendous emotion, it was evident he was as shocked as the others.
But Jed had conceived another idea entirely. "Look here, I don't reckon 'tis a corpse, after all. Only a wax doll like the figures they sell at Madam Rusalka's.
Indeed, the waxen transparency of the skin, the lifelike color, argued that the body could not be made of any ordinary mortal clay. Yet no one could bring himself to put a hand inside the coffin and put Jed's theory to the test.
Matthias laughed uneasily, rubbing the red stubble that grew along his jawline. "A wax doll . . . aye. Dwarf work by the look of it. It may be worth sommat to somebody. Them velvet togs, too, and that lace collar, they didn't come cheap—they'll bring a pretty price of themselves, if no one wants to buy the figure." He turned to Caleb. "Them old books, too . . . reckon we could sell them to your crony, old Jenk the bookseller?"
With a visible effort, Caleb tore his gaze away from the coffin and its contents. His voice shook and his body still trembled with a violent agitation. "Gottfried Jenk . . . aye, he'll want to see the books—and mayhap the rest as well. Run along, lads, and fetch us a cart. I've no coin for you now, Matthias, but I've a notion that Jenk will pay us well for this night's work."
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Last edited by Teresa Edgerton; 8th January 2012 at 04:56 PM.
|alchemist, alchemy, fantasy, mannerpunk, sorcery, strange & norrell, swashbuckling|
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