Read Poison Online

Authors: Chris Wooding

Poison

 

THE HAUNTING OF ALIZABEL CRAY

“One of the most intelligent novels published for teens in recent years . . . breathtakingly brilliant”
Guardian

 

“enormously inventive and gripping . . . more tension and suspense than a Hitchcock movie . . . not to be missed”
Daily Telegraph

 

“shiveringly exciting”
The Times

 

STORM THIEF

“[a] powerful blend of thriller, science fiction and fantasy”
TES

 

“all the compelling paranoia of a fever-based fantasy”
Books For Keeps

 

“dizzying imaginative detail with action-adventure . . . for kids who find fiction second-best to Playstation games, Wooding is ideal”
The Times

 

POISON

“breathlessly exciting”
Guardian

 

“thrilling”
TES

 

“Wooding's explosive visual imagination knows no bounds”
The Times

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam

 

Once upon a time there was a young lady who lived in a marsh, and her name was Poison.

She was an odd-looking girl, pale and slender with long black hair that fell symmetrically to either side of her head. Her face was an oval, her forehead high but her chin narrow, her lips thin and her nose perfectly straight, if a fraction too long in the bridge. But it was her eyes that dominated her features, great dark eyes of shocking violet, through which she regarded the world with a sullen and disturbing intensity.

She lived in a village called Gull, deep in the heart of the Black Marshes. It was a whimsical choice of name, since none of the inhabitants had ever seen a gull, much less the sea. Unless you counted old Fleet, who might or might not have travelled the Realm and seen many things, depending on whether or not you believed him. The village was built on stilts, a multitude of interlinked wooden platforms that sprawled over a murky and weed-choked lake, dodging between enormous corkscrew trees and grassy landbars that bulked out of the browny-grey water. Sometimes these landbars were swallowed by the water when it rose up the stilts almost to the level of the houses; and sometimes the lake oozed so low that it was possible to see the dark shapes of the things that swam there, waiting to snatch up the unwary. Here in the Black Marshes, life was a precarious thing, and the only truly solid ground was that which you built yourself.

Poison lived in a round hut near the edge of the lake, where a thick bank of hornbark trees ran up close against the water. She shared the hut with her father, her stepmother and her baby sister Azalea. They had a platform all to themselves, with the wall of their hut surrounded by a circular walkway of rickety planks and a banister of crooked branches. A rope bridge linked them to the next platform along, with a gap where one of the slats had rotted through that Poison had been hopping over ever since she could remember. When she was very young she used to sit on the edge of the gap and dangle her feet through. Her mother – her
real
mother – had warned her against it, but she was ever a contrary child and she ignored the advice. Then one day, when the lake had risen particularly high, she had been dangling her feet when a goatfish lunged out of the water. She spotted its horned, looming shadow an instant before it surged out of the murk, its mouth wide like a chasm, trailing a beard of tendrils. She pulled herself up as venomous jaws closed around the spot where her legs had been. It was big enough to have taken them off in one clean bite. She learned her lesson from that.

Her mother Faraway had always said that Poison would never take advice, always do the opposite of what she was told. For a time, Poison considered doing the opposite of
that
and following her mother's advice to the letter from then on, but she reasoned that she would only confuse herself and forgot about it. Then her mother died of swamp lung just after giving birth to Azalea, and her father in his grief had remarried a cold beauty from the next village west called Snapdragon. There was antagonism from the start between stepmother and stepdaughter. Though she was all elegance and lightheartedness in the presence of Poison's father, she hated the violet-eyed girl and Poison hated her.

It was to spite Snapdragon that she took the name Poison at her nameday. She had not always been called so. What kind of parent would call their newborn Poison? Her name had been Foxglove until her fourteenth birthday, when the whole village gathered on the central platform to hear the name she had chosen for herself. It was tradition among the marsh people. Girls were named after flowers and herbs, boys after animals or features of the landscape. On their nameday, when they were counted as adults, they were allowed to choose their own name. Many, like Snapdragon, kept the one they had been given. Others, like her woodcutter father Hew, took the traditional names of their profession.

On the morning of her nameday, Foxglove and Snapdragon had argued bitterly.

“You'll never do as I tell you! Never! You'll never be as a good girl should. Always full of questions, never accepting things as they are. Always full of spite for me! You'll never make your father happy, never marry a strong young man. You're poison to this family, poison!”

And so she became. When she announced her new name, there was barely a flicker of surprise among the villagers. She had always been an outcast to them, strange and alien. Only her father and stepmother sucked in their breath in horror, but by then it was too late. Poison she was, and Poison she would be for ever.

 

Two years had passed since that day, and Poison was sixteen now, on the awkward cusp of womanhood. Her sixteenth birthday had been entirely forgotten by both her parents this year, and there had been nobody else to celebrate it with her. She didn't care. It was just a day, like any other. Why should she be compelled to feel glad on that one particular day, to dance and drink marshwine and be merry, to commemorate the moment that she was forced moist and bloody from her mother's womb? What was there to celebrate about that? She was happier before, when the world was a hot red warmth and there was only the sound of her mother's heartbeat and the muffled reverberations of her comforting voice. Better that than this – this cold, dreary land of grief and misery.

She envied the villagers her own age, who could forget their cares in the joy of a celebration, who aspired to nothing more than a good husband or a pretty wife, to raise children to perpetuate themselves. She could not think like that. She could not shrug off the fact that one in five of them died of swamp lung by their thirtieth birthday, that every other child was stillborn, that boys and girls disappeared every month and were never seen again, snatched up by marsh creatures or phaeries. The older villagers grieved, and they were full of woe at the harshness of life, but not one of them lifted a finger to do anything about it. People were much happier if they accepted their lot, it seemed; but she could not bring herself to accept hers. To marry a young man of the village, to settle down and idle her life away bearing children and caring for them? She would rather cast herself in among the goatfish. At least that would be a quick death instead of the long, lingering one that staying in Gull would be.

“You have a touch of the Old Blood in you, Poison,” Fleet had told her once. “From back in the time when men and women were strong, and they ruled the Realm.”

“What happened to them?” she had asked, sitting as she always did on the rug before the fire, with the old man in his battered wicker chair taking puffs from the hookah that stood on the floor next to him.

“They got soft,” Fleet replied. “Living was easy, the Realm was at peace. Man doesn't like to be at peace. It goes against his nature. So people began to squabble amongst themselves; and from their squabbles came conflicts; and conflict is such an easy thing to start and a difficult thing to stop. So followed the Many-Sided War, and when it was over, Man had become divided and weak. He took to the swamps and the mountains, and turned his back on his fellows. The old cities are empty and crumbling now, haunted by ghosts of the past, just as we are.” He took a draw on his hookah and blew out a jet of aromatic smoke, which feathered in the updraught of the fire and dispersed across the thatched ceiling.

Poison knew all about the Many-Sided War – or at least she knew the legends, for who knew what was fact and what was fiction? – but she liked to hear the old man talk. Fleet was regarded as an oddity, much as she was. Though he kept himself to himself, he was absent for long periods at a time, and when he returned it was always with new tales to tell. He might have been inoffensive in other ways, but the fact that he wandered at all was enough for parents to warn their children away from him. No good could come of the outside world. Phaeries lived out there, and trolls and ghoblins and things without names. There were not a few in the village who muttered that maybe the old man had a bit of phaerie in him. To be so spry at his age could only mean trouble.

“But you, girl,” he creaked at length, “you have some of that ancient spirit in you, as I have. You won't be satisfied with life here. You see beyond what's in front of you.”

“Sometimes I wish I could just be . . . happy. Happy with what I've got,” she confessed. “Like the other girls my age.”

“Ach!” he barked, with a wave of his wrinkled and weathered hand. “Don't confuse contentment with happiness, Poison. Besides,” he said, staring into the fire, his expression suddenly distant, “some of us are born in the right place, and some of us have to go look for it.”

 

It was Soulswatch Eve tonight. Poison had spent the day roaming the denser marshes that surrounded the lake where Gull stood, cropping mushrooms and roots with her rusty little sickle. Everything metal rusted within a year in this place, with all the moisture in the air, yet they could never seem to get wood or stone sharp enough to serve as decent blades. Another aspect of life that was accepted with a weary shrug by the people of the marsh. She cursed as she hacked through her hundredth foilscap stem and wished for a sharper edge.

When she returned, night was falling and the soul cages were already being hung in the trees. She carried a basket brimming with tiny mushrooms. Snapdragon would be angry, of course: she had specifically told Poison to gather the biggest ones for the pot. But Poison preferred the smaller ones, for their taste was sharper and not so bland, and in the end, who was doing all the work anyway?

She idled past a couple of children monkeying their way through the upper branches of the dense trees to secure another soul cage. They chattered among themselves as they affixed it, an orb of wooden bars cradling a candle in the middle. The candle was set in a bulb of rare coloured glass. When the candle was lit, it would glow a soft purple-pink. Poison glanced a little further upward, and saw the muscular flank of a murksnake hanging in lazy loops and coils around a higher branch, watching the morsels beneath it uninterestedly. It was too late in the day for murksnakes to feed, and for that the children would have been thankful, if they had even known it was there. Had it been a few hours earlier, with the snake's metabolism powered by the faint heat of the sun, it would have bitten them both and coiled around them to crush their bones to jelly while they were paralysed. Poison wondered how many more times they might brush by death like that before it caught up with them.

She navigated her way around the platforms of Gull to get back to her hut. The air was chill and full of the pirriping of insects and the slovenly rustle of the larger marsh animals. Fireflies swung back and forth like pendulums in the shadowy recesses of the trees. A soupy white mist obscured the water of the lake. Because of the way the town was laid out, it was necessary to pass by several huts on the way back home. Most platforms had three or four huts clustered together with their doors facing inward, and a plank walkway around the back of them. Murky, circular windows, divided into quarters by their frames, ran around the outsides of the round huts. Tar torches blazed on long poles around the edges of each platform, adding their light to the glow from within the huts. Smoke wisped through stone chimneys in the thatched roofs.

On the last platform before home, she heard an excited chatter ahead of her. Automatically, she considered avoiding it; she was not fond of the village children, and they were not fond of her. Unfortunately, there was no way to pass it by unseen. She had to skirt the platform to get to the bridge that linked to her hut. With a sigh, she forged stoically onward.

She had guessed what the disturbance was before she rounded her neighbour's hut and it came into sight. A man was striding across one of the rope bridges that linked this platform to others, dogged by a gaggle of children who darted about behind him and before him. He seemed oblivious to them all, loping along under the burden of a vast array of metal jars that clanked and clattered as he walked. He was clad all in furs, with thick hide gloves and a broad, battered hat, and his face was grizzled with whiskers and a great white moustache. A wraith-catcher.

Poison stopped to watch him, less out of interest and more because she wanted to pique Snapdragon by being as late as possible. A wraith-catcher came to the village every Soulswatch Eve, to buy up all the marshwraiths that the villagers caught in their soul cages. Poison reflected that he did not actually do any actual catching at all on this night, just bartering and haggling; but she supposed that he spent enough time during the rest of the year hunting the poor things down to justify his title. It was only on Soulswatch Eve that catching marshwraiths became a public spectacle.

On this night in the year, when the moon was right, the marshwraiths came out to dance and swirl. Poison found it beautiful to watch them, softly fizzing balls of ethereal light trailing phantom sparks as they looped and curled around each other. Nobody knew why they emerged on the same night each year, or why they danced and flashed their colours, gliding through breathtaking hues that went beyond the spectrum of human vision. Some speculated it was a kind of mating ritual; others said it was the souls of the dead, the children whom the marsh had taken from them, come back to visit their relatives.

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