After Sumé left her last home in ruins, there was no place left to go except back to the island she’d abandoned years ago. Except when her boat scraped against the shallows, she found the island’s dock slumped from rot and disuse. And the path leading from the docks was smothered by vines and ferns, so overgrown it was almost invisible. The stink of stagnant water and algae assaulted her. The emptiness, the neglect confirmed her worst fears. She was the first person to step on the island in twenty years.
The swan boy lives in an abandoned church in a sleepy, green town by the river. He is small and young-looking still, though he is sixteen now and has been the swan boy for years. His hair is dirty and grown out long enough to cover his shy face. His clothes are striped with greasy white stains, radiating down from the shoulders of his rough shirt. No one would give him a second look if not for the huge, white shield of a swan’s wing that he has in place of a left arm. The people in town do not talk to him.
Once upon a time, in that place right near to us, there lived a man and a woman, together as man and wife, though, like most peasants, no one had married them nor given them any word. It was simply that their love for each other was stronger even than their poverty. Not that there are wealthy men in these lands—how could there be wealthy men where winter sleeps an inch below the earth?—but this man and this woman had so few stores that it was only their love for each other that kept them warm through the long dark.
It’s the middle of the night and the woman can’t sleep. Perhaps it’s the full moon, or the fool moon, the kind of moon that keeps you awake thinking stupid thoughts. She puts on her glasses and sees that it’s 2:55 a.m. The man lies beside her generating too much heat. There’s a small brown dog nestled into her armpit. A white dog sleeps at her feet. She’s wedged in between them like a crooked tooth. For about an hour now she’s been thinking about the two races of man. One race is very, very slow; they crawl upon the earth like slugs, leaving silvery slime trails wherever they go.
You have just been attacked by a Kharbat. It has sprung on you from hiding, in some place where you foolishly imagined yourself safe; and even as its many glittering fangs sink deep into the flesh and bone of your shoulder, you know that any attempt to save yourself is futile, that you were always fated to perish in this way, and this beast was always fated to usher you screaming into the world of the dead. What is a Kharbat? I don’t know. Why am I asking you? I am the world’s leading expert.
Since the beginning of the world, there’ve been a thousand ways invented to be lonely. In a market stall, surrounded by speechless wooden wares, or banished to a black rock in the center of the sea. In a tower, feet forced into standing, floor too small for kneeling down, the only view a high window, the world below made of fire. On a road, parched, nothing but horizon. In the dark, visited by spirits jealous with their leavings. At the tops of certain mountains there are places for those the world refuses, and at the bottoms of other mountains there are prisons for those the world regrets.
I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in their secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you so you’ll know that this tale I tell you is true, just as I heard it and just as it happened, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth. The name I’m called is Dusty Boots, I come from the valley of Erwhile, and I am in love with a girl that I can never have.
I arrived in the Land of Witches at the end of the season of furs. The sun shone, banks of chilly foam lay piled up in the streets, and the river emitted groans day and night as the ice broke into pieces, setting free the witches’ colorful winged boats. My master took a room in the Lean Hotel. This building consists of a single spire that twists up into the greenish, iridescent sky. Ascending to our room presented no difficulties, however, for the steps were endowed with a charm that eroded time. This shaping of time is one of the marvels of the Land of Witches.
Angela found the saint at the base of the cliffs beneath the old watchtower. She had followed his trail from the village: a line of footprints braided with the chaotic, black-stained tracks of the raiders, leading to the cliffs. There he must have fallen, or leapt away in fear. The crumbling stones of the watchtower were marred with scars from the raiders’ lashing claws and teeth, striped with their fetid black ichor, but there was no sign of them on the switchbacks that wound down to the beach.
It’s best to leave some things forgotten. Lord have mercy on my soul. Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy. I don’t know why you want me to talk about all this in the first place. This here’s a spirit stone, and I come out here to make sure it ain’t been covered up. Things need tending to. No, I suppose not all things ought to be forgotten. Feels like I done been around here some thousand years or some such; moving, settling down, and moving again. ’Course I ain’t been around quite that long, it just seemed that way when I got to thinking back.