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Chapter Six

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Gulls called overhead. Their cries were incessant, and in the crisp morning carried further than the narrow tidal flat where the Brackwater met the Evenflow at Foulby Island.

Gatha didn't have to ignore them. It would be like ignoring the sound of one's own breathing. The calls fit so perfectly into the background that only their absence would cause her to take notice. That morning there was nothing to compete for her attention as she forced her way through the tidal flat.

Her skirts were lifted up, tied to her thighs, keeping her hem free of muck and giving her more freedom to move around the mud bank. She trod with experience, her feet sinking barely passed her ankles.

The mud larks fanned out behind her, tacitly following her path around the silt bank, but each sinking to their knees or further. Their hands darted out and back, pecking at the mud like the gulls their presence displaced into the sky. They came back with tiny objects covered in cloying muck, were shook, inspected, and mostly thrown back. Rarely there would be a flash of yellow or silver and the urchins would drop the treasure into a pocket and the process would begin again.

Gatha's hands did not dart out and back constantly. When she reached out it was always deliberate, and what she picked up would be carefully cleaned of mud with a nearby pool of water or a cloth for that purpose, and mostly what she picked up would be dropped into her own pockets, though never did they shine or sparkle.

"Mistress Gatha!"

One of the younger urchins, a girl of around seven called Clara, was hopping through the mud towards her, holding her hand above her head as if it might be claimed by the river. Gatha straightened with a cracking of joints and wiped her hands on her skirt.

"Yes, child?"

The girl reached Gatha with a red-cheeked pant. "Found this, mistress. Is it one of the things you want?" She held out her hand with a nugget of hardened silt as careful as if she'd found royal jewels.

Gatha took it. Something cream showed beneath the muck, worn smooth by time and the rivers' flow. The outer shell still held its form and the honeycombe inside was intact. So, not old enough. Perhaps.

She closed her hands and held them to her forehead. Images of second hand vitality flashed across her mind; of dashes low to the cobbles and chases across roofs and over gutters. She let the thread go before she could see the image of the cat's death and the headache such images brought on.

The bone was not old, but it had some power. Her eyes creased at Clara and the little girl beamed. "Thank you, child. This will do." She turned the bone between her fingers and regarded the girl. This was the second time this week the child had found something Gatha could use. "How did you find it?"

"It was just there," she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "I was walking, looking, and found it."

"Why were you looking where you found it?"

A shrug. "I was just looking, mistress. And there it was."

"Well, that was a stroke of luck." She leaned down and lowered her voice, "In return, five yards behind the boy with the blue cap is purse lost by a young gentleman last week. There'll be a few coins inside."

The girl accepted the knowledge solemnly and hopped off through the mud to find her prize. Gatha watched her go. Twice in one week could be coincidence, or it could be something else. She determined to keep an eye on the girl. If she did have any power Gatha would show her how to hide it before the Church could get wind of her.

She slipped the cat bone into her pouch. Ground, it would help ease a fever or tooth ache. It would bring a few pennies. That would do. And then she went back to her search.

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