Part 21: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 17Journal of The Nameless One: Part 17
A citizen or two glanced at me as I walked past, one arm ensnared in a twisting cage of thorns. Most of the Hive Dwellers, however, passed me by with a jaded nonchalance from years of seeing every oddity the Planes spat into the city.
I held my arm gingerly as I entered the hut. Upon hearing me enter Mebbeth turned and gave me a skeptical eye. The corners of her lips quirked in a whisper of a smile. "Yer path brings ye back here, does it, child...?"
I lifted my arm, "I returned with those herbs you wanted... now maybe you can get this damned bramble-patch off my wrist."
"Is that so?" Mebbeth glanced at the barbs that surrounded my wrist. "If so, think it off, then."
I willed the mass to unravel. Again, I did so thinking gently, urging with will but soft on force.
Creaking and snapping, the black-barbed branches unraveled themselves and formed into a tangled ball of brush and twigs; it looked like a nest of dead black snakes. Mebbeth snorted. "Think it into a picture frame or somesuch, somethin' with more structure and less angles."
I nodded, and focused again. The branched ball creaked, the twigs bending and twisting until the branches had bent themselves into a small picture frame, two handspans on a side. Almost unconsciously, I imagine-shaped the barbs to the back of the frame so it could be hung from the wall easily... and, as an afterthought, I moved the remaining barbs to the inside of the frame so it could be picked up by the edges.
I looked up and grinned, surprised and pleased with myself, "How's that?"
Mebbeth stared at the frame for a moment, then cackled. "Ha! Square enough, it is! Good work, child, good work." She picked up the frame and scrutinized it. "This'll do nicely."
"Is that all you wanted it for?" I had thought she would be making a potion or witch's brew or somesuch. While it was an interesting exercise, it was somewhat less dramatic than I'd hoped.
"Aye, well, this is enough..." She sniffed. "Aye, but there was one thing I forgot to tell ye to fetch when ye left last time, and it'll take ye back to the merchant square it will... look for the cloth-seller, Giscorl. He has some rags of mine that he was supposed to wash, and long has it been since I first asked him to do it."
My eyebrow twitched, "You could have mentioned that before I left... "
Mebbeth snorted, "Aye, blame an old woman's failing memory, why don't ye?"
A sliver of amber light filtered through a small crevice in the roof. And Mebbeth looked up with those pale eyes of hers, "Mayhap ye should leave it for tomorrow. These streets aren't safe for the likes of ye at sundown, and I'd hate to have me first apprentice gutted and laid out in an alley for the Collectors."
I agreed reluctantly, "Could I rest here?"
She nodded, "Of course, child. I have a mess of blankets in the corner that would serve..."
It happened again that night.
Intellectually, I knew what dreams were. They were pictures of the mind, landscapes surreal and terrible. They were the loves and hopes of the living, and the respite of the downtrodden. In some ways I knew the nature of dreams as one might know the nature of a far-off land by reading about it from a book. In other ways it was like describing the colors of a field of blossoms to the blind or a grand symphony to the deaf. The taste of a dream eluded me.
There was only that terrifying void, as if I perched on the precipice between reality and oblivion.
In the morning I left the hut with a bit of gruel in my belly. Mebbeth was a fine healer, but a cook she wasn't. Still, I couldn't complain, but the Gatehouse served better.
The floorboards creaked beneath my boots as I thumped down them briskly, the cool morning air prickling at my scars. A familiar hunched figure was just walking past.
"Nodd!" I cried out. He turned around.
"Someone comes ta speaks ta Nodd, speaks ta Nodd, aye..." He suddenly broke into a fit of hacking coughs, then nodded to himself.
"I spoke to your sister, Amarysse..."
A smile broke on his face, "Ye did? Nodd's so happy, he is! How's Nodd's sister? Tell him of Amarysse, tell Nodd, please!" His excitement set off a long series of hacking coughs. When he could finally speak again, he asked: "Is Nodd's sister still pretty, so pretty?"
I winced inside. I couldn't lie to him; he'd be rushing to see her soon enough, "Yes, she is. She's a... prostitute... now, in the Hive. She is doing well, and is worried for you."
That smile never faltered, "Nodd's so pleased ta know, ta know his sister is all right!" He looked as if he was going to cry for a moment, then swallowed hard. "Anythin' more, anythin' more she said fer Nodd ta hears?"
Morte grunted as I untied the pouch from my belt, "Yes, she wanted you to have these copper commons. She will also visit you, as soon as she can find the time."
Nodd's head stopped nodding abruptly and his jaw dropped as I handed him the one hundred coins. Beneath the dirt-brown hood, his eyes gleamed with joy. "Such wonderful news, it is, good, wonderful news, aye! Nodd thanks ye, and thanks ye again, and thanks ye a thousand times more, aye!"
"Fare well, Nodd. See your sister soon." I walked off smiling.
"You're such a sap, chief."
I felt a little guilty biting into the pear I purchased at the marketplace. After all, Mebbeth was kind enough to put a little more meal on the stove for us, and was patient enough when Morte complained about the slimy texture and lack of flavor. Perhaps it was the way I clipped him across the jaw that mollified her.
Still, the crunch of the pear was refreshing, and the juice burst sweetly on my tongue. There was nothing supernatural about the flavor, but it was perhaps the finest pear I ever had. I dropped a few coins into the merchant's hands as I bought another couple for the road.
"They are my favorites," the old merchant chuckled, "So sweet! Reminds me of my youth."
The cloth-seller Mebbeth mentioned was a spindly-looking merchant with a brush of gray and red stubble across his chin. He wore several layers of brightly colored robes, so much so that he looked like a flag with arms and legs. He was shaking slightly as I watched.
"Greetings. Are you Giscorl?"
"I, Giscorl." He bowed and spread his trembling hands. As he did, I noticed his hands and forearms were a twisted mass of black scar tissue... as if they were once badly burned.
"Uh... what are you selling?"
"Giscorl buy cloth." Giscorl voice ticked like a clock, flat and measured. "Giscorl sell cloth, wash cloth, mend cloth and..." He gestured at his layers of clothing with his shaking hands. "...wear cloth."
I shouldn't have winced. My own arms were far worse off, after all, "Uh... how did you hurt your hands?"
Giscorl didn't seem to hear me; he answered only with his spiel, delivered in the same flat monotone: "Giscorl buy cloth, sell cloth, wash cloth, mend cloth and..." He gestured, again at his layers of clothing with his shaking hands. "...wear cloth."
"I asked: how did you hurt your hands?"
Giscorl's monotone broke. "Giscorl b-buy cloth, s-sell cloth, w-wash cloth, m-mend cloth, and..." He gestured at himself again, but his hands were shaking so badly that he couldn't even finish.
I tried not to stare, "Uh... never mind. Look, I'm here to pick up someone's wash... Mebbeth... the midwife... Ragpicker's Square?"
Giscorl blinked. "Wash cloth?"
"Yes, Mebbeth... Ragpicker's Square?"
"Eh... rag? Picker?" He tapped his fingers, as if counting something. "I know. I remember." He held up a trembling finger, as if telling me to wait.
He returned with a flattened mass of green rags, thin as paper, yet so stiff they looked like they could double as wooden boards. The rags were so caked with a greenish-lime starch that they looked like it would take years of soaking to relax them.
I rapped the cloth with a knuckle, and a hollow clack was the response, "Uh... how many times did you clean these?"
"Giscorl wash cloth, starch cloth every fifth-day, wash cloth, starch cloth every fifth-day." His eyes flickered. "Giscorl wash many years. Always starch cloth on fifth-day. Giscorl's ritual."
"But they're ruined."
"Wash cloth. Is Giscorl's ritual." His voice was flat, almost zombie-like. "Must starch cloth every fifth-day."
"What's the point of doing it every five days when they don't need... oh, never mind, just hand them over."
When I returned, Mebbeth seemed lost in twisting the black-branched picture frame I made for her... she was squaring the edges and snapping off some of the barbed seeds on the branches. She suddenly noticed me at the door and set down the frame. "Aye, child?"
"I brought your wash... I think Giscorl was a little heavy on the cleaning ritual, though."
She took the stacks of starched-green rags from me, and she examined them critically. "At least they won't tear." She sighed. "Or bend."
"What was with that cloth-merchant, Giscorl? His hands were all scarred. and he seemed... slow." I tapped the side of my head.
Mebbeth was still turning the cloth over in her hands, tapping it with her finger. "Well, child, sometimes one burns with the Art, and other times, the Art burns ye."
"Is that what happened to him?"
Mebbeth clicked her tongue. "Mayhap. There's somes for who usin' the Art is like breathing. They strolls about with pointy hats and stinkweed pipes... then there's hedge-wizards n' plane-touched gypsies n' fortune-casters n' half-seers n' midwives who flicker with the Art... them have a harder time of it."
"And Giscorl was one of them?"
Mebbeth nodded. "Aye... so to speak. In some ways, he's no different now than he was. Addicted to habit and ritual, he was." She set down the stiff rags; they clunked as she placed them on the floor. "Aye, now, there's one last thing I need from ye, child..."
I bit off the smart comment I had lined up and schooled my voice so that I sounded serious. Morte's cheekiness was brushing off on me, "Of course. What do you need?"
"Only this: I need some inks fer scribin' some ingredients in one of me cookery books. I'll need ye to fetch some from one of the merchants -- Kossah-Jai, be her name."
I nodded, only heaving a sigh when I was out the door.