The four ancient sisters gathered around Malial. There was no escaping the singular fact that each of the old ladies was equally, yet differently, repugnant and deeply offensive to all but the bravest of noses.
Malial, who had dealt with many a goat which had eaten something that had upset its stomach, did his best to remain unbothered by the smell. This almost certainly saved his life.
“I would like to trade,” he said.
“So you said,” said the first sister. “By the pricking of my thumbs, s-”
“Yes, that’s quite enough of that for one night,” said the second sister. “Let us see your wares, boy.”
Malial showed them the basket. It was so full of red capped mushrooms that some had fallen onto the floor.
“Do you see what I see?” asked the third sister.
“Of course I don’t,” said the fourth sister. “You know my eyesight is bad, these days.”
“He has brought us freshly inhabited urisk huts,” said the second sister.
“But he’s just a scrap of a thing,” said the third sister.
“There is more to this boy than it would seem,” said the first. “That or he just got lucky.”
“I was hoping we could roast him for our dinner,” said the fourth.
“Best not to risk it, sister,” said the first. “Pay the boy.”
The third sister reached into her ragged clothes – it is probably best that you do not know exactly where she reached – and took out a small leather pouch. She opened the pouch and took out two small blue square tiles. They looked like someone had taken a rolling pin to a pair of blue dice. These tiles were dropped into Malial’s waiting hands.
The first sister snatched the basket away from Malial with a wicked cackle.
Malial quickly hid the two hope stones in his pocket and edged towards the door.
“You can stay here tonight,” said the second sister.
“If you chop wood in the morning,” said the fourth sister, “you can even stay for breakfast.”
“Thank you,” said Malial, feeling distinctly nervous. He sat by the fire, keeping it burning until sleep overcame him.
Malial did not like the idea of cutting wood before breakfast and, to be fair, the house was not exactly fresh smelling. At first light, he slipped out of the house and ran for the woods. This undoubtedly saved his life.
The only way back, that Malial knew, was to follow the trail of cuts he had made in the trees along the way there. This was just about the least efficient route he could have taken. As luck would have it, this winding route also caused him to miss not only Lord Brandon and his six best men but also the four sisters, a vengeful urisk, a troll with a toothache, and both ghosts.
When he finally came to where the briar patch had blocked the path, Malial knew to follow the rest of the path back to the old man’s shack.
The old man was greatly surprised to see Malial again. He did his best to hide his surprise by busying himself with fetching a bowl of arguably the worst gruel Malial had eaten in his life.
“When you have eaten,” said the old man, “we will walk to the sea.”
“I’m done, now,” said Malial. He said this because what was in the bowl was, without question, worse than being hungry.
It was a long walk to the sea and each time they passed a home that was baking bread or stewing meats Malial’s mouth watered just a little more. Eventually, they reached a low cliff which was easy to climb down. The sand between the jutting rocks was a golden yellow. The sea lapped gently against the rocks, against the sand, and against anything else it touched. The sea tends to do that.
“I will collect driftwood and start a fire,” said the old man. “You must find seaweed and a mermaid’s purse.”
The old man made a fire and the boy collected seaweed and other items. Like many boys, he collected a good many shells and other worthless detritus tossed up by the sea. He did this because he did not actually know what a mermaid’s purse was, having never been on a beach before. By the time he brought one to the old man he had amassed a large pile of shells, old bottles, pretty stones and other seaside junk.
The old man had a small pot in which he was boiling mussels. While the dinner cooked, he carefully cut seaweed and stuffed it into the mermaid’s purse. “Give me the hope stone,” he said.
Malial reached into his pocket and carefully removed just one of the two stones. He handed it to the old man and said nothing about the second one.
The old man pushed the stone into the mermaid’s purse and then continued to fill it with seaweed. When it was completely full, he raked out some embers from the fire and placed the mermaid’s purse on the embers. It sizzled and smelled bad.
Malial sat by the fire feeling hungry. He kept his bravest face on, like his brother taught him to.
After a while, the old man took the pan off the fire. Malial sat forward expecting dinner. But the old man simply shook his head. He handed the baked mermaid’s purse to Malial.
“Take the mermaid’s purse and crumble it away,” he said. “When you are ready to dive, put the hope stone in your mouth. It will allow you to breath under water. That way, you can dive deep into the sea and find the oysters from which we will gather pearls. Whatever you do, do not swallow the stone or the change will instantly become permanent.”
“One more thing,” said the old man. “The magic will last a little over an hour so resurface before sunset or you may drown.”
Malial put the stone in his mouth, walked to the water’s edge, and dived under the waves.
He did not return before sunset.