کتاب 02 - فصل 16

مجموعه: چهارگانه بخشنده / کتاب: پسر / فصل 32

کتاب 02 - فصل 16

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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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Sixteen

Claire lay panting upon the solid earth. It was dark now. The attack of the gull had consumed precious time, and when she reached the steps that would be the final climb, dusk had come. He had said “Don’t look down” because this very last section, although it was made relatively easy in its climb because of the odd outcroppings that formed footholds, was sheer in its vertical drop. It could have been terrifying to look down and realize the distance that a fall would be. To lose your grip out of terror after such a dangerous and difficult day, to fall at the very end of it—that was what Einar feared. But she rose and looked down now from the edge at the top and saw nothing but darkness. Above her, the sky was filled with stars.

She felt the wound on her neck. It was encrusted with dried blood and very sore, but she thought it was not a serious wound; she had seen worse on children who had tumbled on rocks. Her arm was a greater concern. Gingerly she untied the tight leather strip and let it fall away. The flat rock was stuck to the seaweed, and she pried it loose carefully. Its red covering had been meant as a sign that she was safe. She wondered if Einar would be able to see that it was stained with her blood as well. She held it to her lips briefly, trying to impart a message, a thank-you, a goodbye; then she threw it as hard as she could out into the night beyond the cliff.

She left the seaweed on the throbbing gash and retied the leather strip around it, using her teeth and her right hand. Then she put on her sandals. She was to wait here, Einar had said, for dawn. At dawn the man would come, a strange man wearing a black cloak. He was the one who would take her to her son. Einar did not know how. He only knew that the man had special powers. He came to people who needed help, and offered himself.

Claire was to say yes to the man. There would be a price. She must pay it, Einar said. There would be no choice. To decline the man would bring terrible punishment upon her. Einar knew. The man had approached him, assessed how desperately cold he was after the climb, seen that his toes were white with frostbite, and offered—for a price they would agree upon—to provide him with warmth, comfort, and transportation to whatever his destination might be. It was tempting. But Einar was both willful and proud. He had said no.

“I don’t need you,” he had said. “I’m strong. I climbed out alone.”

The man had offered again. “One more chance,” he said. “The price will be something you can afford, I assure you. A fair trade.” But Einar, suddenly mistrustful, had again said no. Without warning he had found himself on the ground, struck down and weakened by a mysterious power summoned by the man. He lay there unable to move, watching in horror while the man reached under his cloak, withdrew a gleaming hatchet, and chopped off half of his right foot. Then the left.

This was the person Claire was to wait for and say yes to.

She moved carefully away from the cliff’s edge, feeling her way in the dark to a mossy patch beside some bushes. She arranged herself there and fell into an exhausted sleep. When he came, it was morning, and she was still sleeping. He touched her arm and she woke.

“Exquisite eyes,” he said when she opened them. Claire blinked. She stared at him. He was not what she had expected. He was ordinary. Somehow she had thought he would be powerful in appearance. Large. Frightening. Instead, he was narrow-shouldered and thin, with a sallow complexion and neatly trimmed dark hair. And for such a desolate place—she looked around and saw nothing but a barren landscape—he was oddly dressed, in a fashion that was unfamiliar to her. Behind the cloak that Einar had described she could see that he wore a tightly fitted dark suit with sharp creases in the trousers. On his feet were highly polished shoes of a fine leather. There were gloves on his hands, not knitted gloves such as those she was accustomed to wearing in winter, or the coarse gloves that had helped her grip the rope as she climbed. The man’s black gloves were of a thin, silky fabric and molded to fit his slender fingers.

The gloved hands frightened her. He was reaching for her arm, and Claire didn’t want to be touched by those sinuous, silk-encased fingers. She shrank back and rubbed her eyes (“exquisite eyes”? What did that mean?), then rose without his help and stood.

He moved back slightly, facing her. Then he bowed, and his lipless mouth stretched into a mirthless smile. “Your name, I believe, is Claire,” he said. “And perhaps my presence comes as a surprise? Allow me—” She interrupted him. “No. I was told you would be here.” She could tell that the interruption annoyed him. But she felt vulnerable and humiliated, standing there in her shredded clothing, bleeding from wounds and in need of his help. She wanted to assert herself in some way.

“Indeed. I am here at your service, prepared to offer a fulfillment of your wishes, at a price to be negotiated to our mutual satisfaction.”

Claire drew herself up. “I understand that,” she replied, and could see him stiffen with annoyance again. He wanted her to be weak, and needy. She swore to herself that she would not be. “You realize,” she went on, “that I have nothing of value to give to you.” “Shall we let me be the judge of that?” He spoke now in a threatening whisper.

“If you wish,” Claire said.

“Let us begin, then. Let us commence. Let us undertake to establish what it is that you hope to achieve or acquire, what it is that I may provide to you for this yet-to-be-determined price.” She could feel her resolve weaken, and her voice faltered as she told him. “I have a son,” she said. “I want to find my son.”

“A son! How sweet. Maternal love is such a delicious trait. So you don’t want riches, or romance, but simply . . . your son?” The way he said the word, hissing it, sneering it, made her feel sick.

“I was told that you could help me.”

“You have been informed correctly. Accurately and precisely. But! We must agree on the price to be paid. The trade, do you see? A son in return for—”

She made her voice as firm as she could. “I have nothing. You can see that. I was hoping—”

To her horror he reached forward and grasped a thick handful of Claire’s long hair. She flinched.

“What is this, then? You have beautiful hair. Luxuriant tresses, I would say. Sweet-smelling despite your recent ordeal. Do you call this nothing?”

He put his face into her hair and inhaled. His breath was foul-smelling, and Claire willed herself not to step back in disgust. He was twisting the hair he held and hurting her, but she stood her ground. Was that what he wanted? Just her hair? He was welcome to it. It was dirty and tangled and she would be glad to free herself of it, Claire thought.

But he opened his gloved hand, released the handful of curls, and stood back to look at her with his slitted, close-set eyes. Her first thought on meeting him had been: ordinary. Now she saw that he was not ordinary at all but darkly sinister. It was not just his breath that smelled. Suddenly he was enveloped in a rancid aroma so thick that it was almost foglike. His words seemed to ooze from his lipless mouth.

“Hardly a fair trade, is it? A head full of coppery curls in return for a living boy? A son?” Had she imagined that his tongue darted in and out, like that of a snake, when he hissed the word?

“No,” Claire agreed. “It doesn’t seem an equal trade. But as I told you, I have nothing.”

“Nothing is such a pathetic word, isn’t it? But then, you are pathetic. Your clothes are rags and you have a pustulous scab on your neck. Still . . .” He hesitated. “My calling, my mission, my motivation and my very existence, is to create trades. This for that! Reciprocity!” The tongue flickered again as he drew out the word “reciprocity.” Claire shuddered but maintained her composure.

“So you want your boy. Your son. Tell me his name.”

“I’m sorry—I’m not certain. My memory has been damaged. I think he was called Babe.”

“Babe?” His voice was contemptuous. Claire felt as if she were failing a test.

“Wait!” she said. “Maybe it was Abe! It was so long ago. It might have been Abe!”

“Abe, Babe . . .” The man’s body swayed as he repeated the words in a singsong voice. Then he fell silent, moved close to her, leaned forward, and whispered harshly. “I offer you this trade. I make the offer only once. Take it or leave it. Ready?” Dreading what he was to say, Claire nodded. She had no choice.

He grabbed her neck with his eerily smooth gloved hand, pressing into her wound so that pain sliced through her, and drew her face close to his. She could smell his foul breath again. “I want your youth,” he said harshly into her ear, and his warm saliva sprayed across her cheek.

“Trade?” he murmured, still holding her in his awful embrace.

“Yes,” Claire whispered.

“Say it.”

“Trade,” she said loudly.

“Done.” He released her then and shoved her away from him. When he turned and walked away, she understood that she was to follow. Surprisingly, she found it difficult to walk. Her legs were weak. She couldn’t straighten her body easily. Had it been only twenty-four hours before that she had leapt from rock to rock, had climbed and grasped and pulled herself up the sheer cliff? Now she was shuffling and bent, and it was hard to catch her breath. She struggled to keep up with the man, who was striding quickly ahead. Her hair fell forward over her face, and when she reached up to smooth it back, she saw that her hand had changed, had become veiny and spotted; and she saw, too, that the loosened hair was no longer the thick red-gold curls he had admired a few minutes before. Now it was a sparse handful of coarse gray.

He paused, looked back, and smirked at her confusion. “Get a move on, you old hag,” he said. “And by the way . . .”

He watched her contemptuously as she made her way, shuffling around a boulder in the path. “Your son’s name is Gabe,” he said.

“And mine? My name,” he added, with a superior and hostile smile, “is Trademaster.”

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