Gwendoline and the Fatemaker – Part 3
A short story.
The silence of the city slapped Gwendoline’s across the face like a violent forcefield. The Fatemaker’s studio had always been alive with music, even when no sound could be heard. Out here, in the world, she was reminded of how alone they were. Gwendoline was ill at ease in the clothes the Fatemaker had lent her; they hung too loose upon her frame, and the texture of the fabric irritated her skin. She watched him lock the door, and followed him down the narrow street without a word.
Gwendoline had sealed the pitcher before they left, so the last of the power it held could not spill free. It hung in a black cotton bag on her shoulder. After years of feeling it against her skin, even this was too far away. She didn’t trust it not to fall and break. What would happen then, she wondered? Would she be tied to the path she had chosen for eternity, if the tool she imprisoned herself with lost its power?
“Do you remember the way?” Gwendoline asked. It had been a lifetime since their first meeting with the Saltmaster, but she remembered the splash of water around his cavern, and the cool damp stench that permeated the air. They had travelled by boat, she was certain of that, in spite of the haze of her memory. But the Fatemaker led her away from the canal, towards the centre of the city and the deserted marketplace where they had met so many years ago.
“I don’t need to,” the Fatemaker said. “I create the way.”
“You have a new skill,” Gwendoline observed.
“I repurposed an old one.” In days long past, the Fatemaker used to be a talkative man – words flowed from him with a lyrical ease, his voice engaged in a steady, soothing narration of the world he inhabited. Now, each word Gwendoline extricated from him was painstaking. Her own speech was largely inhibited by the topics they couldn’t speak of.
The Fatemaker held his arm uneasily. Gwendoline wondered, again, who the third tattoo belonged to. He took great pains to hide it, and that alone was evidence of its power.
“If I went this way,” Gwendoline gestured to an alley on her right that meandered sluggishly into darkness, “would you follow me?”
“Yes.” The Fatemaker didn’t elaborate on his answer. He turned to the path Gwendoline had suggested, and didn’t query her decision.
“The way is arbitrary,” she noted. “If that’s the case, why haven’t you summoned him in front of us right here?”
“The Saltmaster dwells in the sea,” the Fatemaker said. Gwendoline could hear the eyeroll in his voice, even though his face was turned away from her. “All roads south of here lead to the sea. It’s not some magic trick Gwen; I know this city like the back of my hand.”
“And if I chose the north road?” She couldn’t help herself. 23 years of enforced solitude had not curbed her inquisitive streak as much as she would have hoped. “Would you follow me then?”
“How many years did you circle that river? You should know by now even a road straight north will lead you south in the end.” After a further stretch of silence, the Fatemaker added “You do impress me, Gwen. For someone who gave up all freedom to speak cruel words, it astounds me that you retained your talent for being obnoxious.”
“I never needed you to reveal it to me,” Gwendoline said, “so obnoxiousness is mine for the keeping.”
It began to rain as they reached the end of the alley. The road was wider here, an array of uneven cobbles that ran along the inside of the city walls. Fat raindrops landed on the ground, and made it slippery to tread. Gwendoline marched ahead of the Fatemaker now; she felt a need for solitude, a solitude he could not give her, no matter how much she told herself it was her destiny.
A narrow gate in the city wall led to a deserted, sandy beach. The dim light of the moon cast shadows from large rocks dotted around the shore. Memories pressed against the corners of Gwendoline’s mind, a hazy montage she forced herself to forget, sensory and painful. She had almost drowned the last time she had set foot here. Salt water had weighed down her lungs, made her choke and splutter, stolen her breath. Waves crashed against the shore, and the night smelt of salt and seaweed.
“How did he kill her?” Gwendoline asked as the Fatemaker followed her through the gate.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“How do we kill him?”
“I don’t know that either.”
They walked along the beach in silence. Gwendoline took her bag off her shoulder, and held it under her coat for protection. She didn’t trust the rain not to seep through the fabric, and merge with the saltwater in the pitcher. It no longer just held her power – within that blue clay was her final bargaining chip, and perhaps, her weapon.
“This way.” The Fatemaker led her towards a cluster of caves, a rocky mass that merged with the base of the city wall. He took a dagger from inside his jacket. “Be careful; there are guards now.”
“Guards? Physical, or magical?”
The Fatemaker’s final word was drowned out by a blood-curdling howl. The beast roared again, and hurtled towards them through the darkness. Gwendoline stood at the edge of the cave now, ankle-deep in seawater. The Fatemaker touched her arm lightly as he overtook her. The howls of the beast echoed around the cave, and Gwendoline shivered with terror. She could barely see a metre in front of her, but she knew this was the cave where she had last met the Saltmaster, when she had begged him to take away the pain the Fatemaker had gifted her the ability to cause.
With one hand still clutching the pitcher to her chest, Gwendoline reached out for the Fatemaker in the darkness. She needed to know he was close to her, to know he was safe. Her darkest secrets were inked into that man’s skin, her deepest love and most vindictive cruelty ran through his veins instead of her own. Gwendoline did not know whether it was the Fatemaker she sought to protect, or the parts of her that resided in him. He pushed her hand away when she reached for him. Gwendoline was grateful she didn’t have a heart to feel the pain of rejection this simple gestured caused her.
This time, the beast did not roar. It was silent as it lunged through the darkness. Its sharp, snapping teeth tore through the Fatemaker’s skin. Gwendoline didn’t see it coming. The Fatemaker fell back against her; the weight of his body crushed her to the ground, and the pitcher Gwendoline had carried carefully for 23 years shattered beneath them.
Gwendoline didn’t have time to mourn her loss, or consider its consequences. She pushed the Fatemaker off her, and crawled up from the water. The beast was nowhere in sight now. At first, Gwendoline thought the attack had simply been a warning, that the beast would leave them alone if they stayed far away from the Saltmaster’s lair. When she dragged the Fatemaker out of the cave, and laid him to rest upon the beach, Gwendoline saw that the beast’s attack was no simple warning, but an act of theft.
A deep wound ravaged the Fatemaker’s arm. Gone was Gwendoline’s heart and the infinity sign of Valencia’s hair. All that was left of the third tattoo was the clawed remains of the Fatemaker’s own face. A shard of the pitcher was lodged inside his skin, and Gwendoline realised the full significance of the catastrophe they had endured: the saltwater had not simply poured from the broken pitcher into the sea, it had returned to the blood that had made it.
A violent pain ripped through Gwendoline’s chest. She clutched at her ribcage, trying to stop the spasms that incapacitated her. As Gwendoline collapsed beside the Fatemaker on the rain-soaked beach, she heard the voice of the Saltmaster in the distance. It had changed since their last encounter. The voice that had once rumbled deep and low was higher now, and so familiar it momentarily paused the pain in her chest. The echo of Valencia’s voice through the Saltmaster’s cavern was the last thing Gwendoline heard before consciousness evaded her.
To be continued…