Chapter 9

​For several strange moments, all Adal could hear was his own heartbeat thundering in his ears.

Time had a peculiar way of slowing down during certain moments. Moments of intense concentration. Moments that necessitated intense quiet, such as creeping through the underbrush behind enemy lines. Moments when his body seemed to all but shut down and take the clock with it, freeing his mind up to think through its next move.

It’s just like last time, he thought with some dismay. The first casualty. It’s going to become a running joke.

He had the presence of mind to stretch out his legs, bracing himself against the log where he sat by leaning his weight through his arms. He stared down at his calf, dumb with shock. He’d barely even felt it.

So what next, then?

Time sped up, slingshotting him into the present. Calay arrived in a scramble, half-dressed with his satchel slung over-shoulder. When his eyes met Adal’s, they were wide with surprise, if not quite worry. The medic was quick on his feet, dashing over and folding himself into a neat, careful kneel beside Adal’s boots.

“Did you get a good look at it?” he asked.

Adal blinked. “What’s there to see? It’s just two holes in my leg.”

Calay also blinked, but it was the prolonged blink of a long-suffering parent, the type who regrets telling their child there are no stupid questions.

“The snake,” he said, voice flat. “Did you get a look at the snake.

Oh. He had not.

“It was just a blur and ripples. It was half in the water. I barely saw a thing.” Adal’s mouth tightened as he spoke. Because upon saying those words, he realized what he was admitting to: that he had no idea what type of treatment to suggest. No idea what path to set Calay down. He still didn’t trust the man, something about him set Adal’s teeth on edge. Now Adal had no choice but to… listen to him. To trust his purported wisdom. To listen to some smooth-talker with a northern accent get all father-knows-best.

“All right,” Calay said, inhaling. He reached down and grabbed the cuff of Adal’s pant leg. He rolled it up, yanking the canvas up without asking permission. Adal might normally have voiced complaint, but something strange was occurring inside his body.

His heart began to pound. That heartbeat which had rushed in his ears earlier now doubled in time, the beats of it no less strong and no less steady, just faster. Urgent. He swallowed. Was his heart racing because of the venom? Already? Or was his heart racing because he was afraid at the prospect of what the venom might do? Was there even any way to tell? Were his palms getting sweaty because of some bodily response, or was it just nerves?

Sitting stiffly, Adal wiped his palms on the knees of his trousers while Calay examined the wound.

“It’s impossible to say what did this,” the medic said after a short inspection. “There are three common venomous snakes on this island. They’re all rather different. Katangas and the vipers like that are more common in the northlands. In the south, you get blackmouths and rattlers and that sort. Did you hear a rattle?”

Adal tried to think back. He tried to school his body into calm by force of will alone. It was not working. The calm with which Calay addressed him, the way he spoke with an almost academic detachment about the potential poisons that could be working their way through Adal’s body that very instant, did little to quell the little peaks of fear beginning to rise in him.

“I don’t think so,” he said at last.

Calay’s fine silver-blond brows knit together in a look of consternation. He flipped his satchel open and extracted a small dark-wood box. Flipping open the hinge, he revealed inside a glittering array of glass vials, each filled with a scant amount of liquid and stoppered with wax. The liquids inside ranged from deep pine green to various shades of sickly, rotten brown.

“Well, Adalgis,” he said, and something about the way he said Adal’s full name was like the scrape of a fork on fine china. “I’ve got nine doses of antivenin for snakes. But most of them are fairly different. You a gambling man?”

Adal sat up straighter. His brows shot down low over his eyes.

“Fuck you,” he growled. What kind of bedside manner was this? Who had taught this man to be a physician? A bloody hangman?

“Give him the blackmouth.”

The voice that piped up from behind Adal’s shoulder was young, almost prepubescent.

Geetsha stood there, dressed in nothing but her undershift, which fortunately fell all the way to her knees. She was barefoot. She stood in a patch of moss, twisting it through her toes as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

“I saw it,” she said. “Was a blackmouth. Give it to him or he’ll fall sick shortly.”

Adal’s heart twitched in his chest. That time was definitely nerves. The way Geetsha spoke, with an almost otherworldly confidence that seemed to come from somewhere outside her small, scrawny body…

Really, out of anyone to be at his side in his moment of need, anyone in this party, did it have to be Geetsha and Calay?

Calay regarded Geetsha with open distrust, eyes locked on her in a puzzled glare that approximated exactly what Adal felt inside. How long had she been standing there? How had she seen the snake? Hells, had she been watching him relieve himself?

“Where did you see it?” Calay asked, even as his fingers moved toward one of the vials in the box.

Adal’s palms grew sweatier still. He felt beads of sweat beginning to form upon his brow. Each breath seemed to come a little shallower than the last, as though he were trying to catch his breath after a long swim. He breathed in slow and deep to steady himself, or at least he tried to, because halfway through it just felt… difficult. Like filling his lungs all the way was a lot of work.

“There.” Geetsha lifted a long sleeve and pointed off into the swamp. Adal peered the way her arm gestured, but he didn’t see anything. Just stagnant puddles and mud.

Calay turned his head, also following the gesture, and let out a noncommittal grunt. Looking back to Adal, he shifted a little closer.

“Well,” he said. “You’re starting to look a little pale. If it was a blackmouth, you’ll be winded in twenty minutes and your heart will give out within the hour.”

Adal couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“Where did you learn medicine, lad?” He gasped. He started to say something else, a stronger admonition, but all that resulted from his efforts was a wheeze. “The… the muh…”

His voice sounded shrill with panic. Oh, how he hated that. But Calay did something that surprised him then. He reached up with his vial-free hand and settled it on Adal’s knee. Speaking calmly and clearly, he looked Adal straight in the eye.

“I learned from a man who knew what he was doing. I know what I am doing. If Geetsha really saw a blackmouth out there, all we’ve got to do is get this down your gullet, treat the wound, and you’ll feel fluey for a couple days but otherwise carry on living.” He took a short breath, then gave Adal’s knee a squeeze.

“But in order for me to treat you, you have to stop being a gigantic fucking baby.” Calay said that last bit with a smile that was knife-edge thin.

Adal couldn’t even think of an appropriate comeback.

“Churchbells, you’re a little shit,” he grumbled. He was glad to get that all out in a single breath. He put out his hand for the vial all the same.

###

Things got worse before they got better.

For starters, Calay’s antivenin tasted like garlic-slathered rot. Adal gagged as he swallowed it. Calay stood beside him, crouching to eye level, and coaxed him through drinking it down. He passed Adal a canteen afterward and told him to chase it with as much water as his stomach could hold.

“You’re astute,” Calay said in between all of Adal’s short-winded griping. “It does have wild garlic in it.”

He managed to hold it down, but he suspected that was simply due to the fact that he had yet to eat.

Calay rinsed and dressed the two tiny punctures in his calf. The man’s fingers were light; Adal barely felt it. His limbs felt somewhat far away. Far away and heavy, like they were each hundreds of miles long and burdened with millstones. Sitting up all the way was a chore. He watched the top of Calay’s head as he worked, deft hands spreading some sort of cream along the punctured skin, then winding a neat cloth bandage into place. It was tidy enough work. He’d received worse in field hospitals. And he’d recovered from all that.

“We ought to get you back to camp,” said Calay as he rose from his crouch. “You’re going to need a bit while this stuff works through your system.”

As Adal soon found, that was a marked understatement.

The stomach cramps kicked in not long after. Adal shuddered up off the log where he sat, and as loath as he was to accept the assistance, Calay had to help him down the path back to the campsite. Geetsha stood near the fire, conversing with Riss. Presumably she’d told Riss what was the matter, because Riss kept glancing over Adal’s direction, and when she finally saw him walking toward her, she blew Geetsha off in a hurry and raced to his side.

“Please don’t say anything,” Adal begged her through clenched teeth.

But Riss didn’t look like she was busy formulating any smart remarks. She looked sincerely worried. Which meant he must have looked as garbage as that concoction had tasted.

“Let’s get you down,” Riss said, and she moved to his other side. One arm each around Riss and Calay’s shoulders, Adal let himself be all but carried back to his bedroll. Muscle cramps started in his calf and worked their way upward into his guts, strange little flexes of the body that he had no control over whatsoever. When they hit near his diaphragm, his already-labored breath grew even more difficult. Be it the stress or the poison or the cure or what, his heart hammered against his sternum like it was trying to escape.

He sank down onto his bedroll with a soft, weary sigh. When he turned his head, he found the bedroll already wet, such was the sweat that was pouring from his brow.

“You’re sure he’ll be fine?” Riss asked Calay from far, far above him. He could see their boots, but their faces seemed a thousand miles away.

“If that’s what bit him, he’ll be fine.” Calay’s confidence was stern, almost soldierly. Almost. He lacked the discipline, Adal already knew. There was no way he’d served. He was too…

“Hey, old fella. You need more water?”

He ticked his eyes sideways. Towering over him like an ancient, ageless tree, Torcha peered down. She moved so quick that tracking her made him dizzy. Adal forced his eyes to close even though he was far, far too keyed up to even consider sleeping. The strange, distorted height was just a little too much taken with the cramping and the breathing and the sweating. The last thing he needed was to empty the remnants of dinner onto his bed for the next week and a half.

“I’m fine,” he said through tightly-grit teeth.

“Give him a little space, Torch.” Riss again. Footsteps sounded near his head. He couldn’t tell if they were moving closer or away.

Cramps rolled through his body in dizzying waves. He tried to find that far-off, silent place inside himself. The place he’d learned to go to that had gotten him through battlefield hospitals and long, agonizing wagon rides, when they’d carried him away from the front a mile at a time, his lung collapsed and his mind wild with what passed for army painkillers. But all that training felt like something from long, long ago. From another lifetime.

Through the cramps and the sweat and the too-recent memories itching their way to the surface, he focused on the sound of Riss’ voice. He could no longer make out exactly what words she was saying, but the calm, confident manner in which she was saying it gave him something to hold on to when the room started spinning in earnest.

<< Chapter 8 | Chapter 10 >>

Chapter 8

All the marching sent memories of Adalgis’ army days swirling to the forefront. So many hours spent rigorously training in his months at the officers’ academy. So many years spent in the field sloppily undoing all that training and replacing it with practical real-world experience. And always in some backwater. And almost always in the forest. And almost always on foot.

He would be a liar if he said he hadn’t missed it at least a little.

Adal watched Riss and their new guide from a few paces behind. The girl–and she was a girl, a pale-faced knobby-jointed thing that certainly didn’t qualify as a woman yet–had taken a natural liking to their leader. Like many did. Or if not a liking at least a respect.

The chatter from the back of their little caravan wasn’t quite so respectful. He could hear snippets of it, when they weren’t crunching too many twigs and leaves underfoot. Torcha and that northerner Calay talking about druids and mosses and other such fanciful crap. While there was no denying that certain places were afflicted–the term used in polite society–Adal had seen worse. A swamp where some trees bore the remnants of an old world curse wasn’t something to be taken lightly, but it also wasn’t worth all the gossip.

Calay was bringing out the worst in her. Adal tried to focus on what was ahead of him rather than worrying about Torcha’s superstitious streak. He didn’t like how this new medic had immediately zeroed in on the youngest member of their team. Adal was far from an overprotective fatherly sort–Hells, his experience with his own father was enough to put him off that sort of behavior for life–but something about the man’s actions seemed predatory in a way he couldn’t pinpoint. And Torcha could be easily distracted at times. Prone to chattiness in the field. She hadn’t been through the Academy or even field training like the rest of them. It was like Calay had honed in her lack of discipline and leeched himself to her side as an easy in when it came to the group.

Or perhaps he just wanted to sleep with her. Maybe Adal was reading too much into it. All he knew was that he was irked.

It was remarkable, the change in scenery. Mere hours before, they’d walked upon what more or less constituted dry land. To the point of where Adal was starting to wonder if ditching the horses really had been necessary. But not long past the idol-decorated tree that passed for a welcome sign in this territory, things got soupy.

Geetsha was good. The trail they followed was thin and winding and, to Adal’s untrained eye, nearly invisible. Yet if they followed in her footsteps, their boots stayed dry. She was light on her feet, but as he was following after Riss and Vosk, he just had to step where they stepped. Even the mud wasn’t so bad, so long as one was careful with the placement of one’s feet.

It rather reminded him of gavotte lessons. And he’d been good at those.

Suddenly, a voice from behind him, low with a gasp of wonder:

“Adal, look up there! Silkpók!”

He hadn’t been looking up. But at Torcha’s call, Adal raised his eyes toward the treetops. He couldn’t quite see what she was talking about at first. But he scanned to his left, then to his right, and he finally saw it lurking in the droopy, yellow-green branches midway up a willow. A big orb weaver spider. Its bulbous body lay perfectly still in a shimmering web that sparkled with dew. For all it moved, the spider may have been dead. Adal’s shoulders twitched a little as an intrusive thought crept into his mind: passing beneath one at an inopportune moment, scrabbly little legs flailing as a gust of wind or just plain malicious bad luck knocked the spider from its perch and straight onto his face below.

It wasn’t a phobia as such. Who liked the idea of a spider falling on their face?

“What’s that word you just used?” Calay was asking Torcha. Adal kept walking, eager to pass beneath the spider and out of range. Just in case.

“This type of spider weaves a real fine silk,” Torcha explained. “In the textile districts, they farm them.”

“They farm spiders on purpose?” Calay sounded dubious. Adal couldn’t blame him.

“Well, more like they set up shop where the spider colonies already lived, would be my guess.” Torcha laughed a little. “Otherwise that sounds like a pain in the ass. Silkpók is what they call the fabric once it’s finished. But it can mean the spider too.”

“That, my friend, is vile.” Calay’s voice was kindhearted as he said that, edged with a little humor.

Was he flirting with her? Adal restrained a sigh. That was the last thing Riss needed to deal with at the moment. It had been easier in the army, keeping the unit from fraternizing. They were all simply too exhausted all the time. There was no time for amorous extracurriculars when that time could have been spent sleeping.

Now that Adal bothered to look up, he saw a few more spiders spread out among the trees. They were high enough up and far enough back in his field of vision that their size seemed diminished, though, so he didn’t experience that crawling sensation upon his palms. Just so long as they didn’t make camp near many.

###

By the time they were ready to make camp, Adal couldn’t have cared how many spiders were lurking overhead. The darkness was thick, crowding, inky. They could barely see any trees past the fire. And all their bedrolls were crowded around it so closely that Adal dismayed more at falling victim to a random elbow or foot in the night than creepy-crawlies.

Geetsha explained this was the largest patch of dry land for a while, so despite how crowded it would be, it was either camp here or keep marching after things had grown uncomfortably dark.

Riss wisely chose to stay put. And as soon as Adal sit down, the fatigue washed over him like waves on the surf. He was perhaps a little out of shape compared to the peak of their marching days, and his feet tingled some.

They crammed their bedrolls onto the available land as best they could, letting the fire burn down to coals in the encampment’s center. Space enough for tents was out of the question. Crammed together like sardines in a tin, everyone attempted to wriggle into their bedrolls with as much personal space as possible.

“Ah, it’s just like the good old days,” Torcha said from somewhere on the other side of the fire. Adal snorted.

“You joke,” said Calay, “but where I grew up this sort of arrangement wouldn’t have been uncommon. Except there were top bunks, too. And someone was always jerking off on the top bunk. And you always knew.”

Sleep was upon him before Adal could think of anything to say in response to that.

###

As usual, Adal was the first besides the watchman to wake. Laying still in his bedroll, he took a moment to experience the sounds of the marsh.

Midges buzzed in the distance, and some sort of bird cawed out a few times. The call was far enough away that it echoed some. Or perhaps there were simply two of them. Adal wasn’t sure if that was what had woken him.

Something scratched and snuffed through the grass not far from where the others slept. For a moment Adal steeled himself, worried at the prospect of some predator nosing toward their camp, but then one of the moa paced into view. It was bent down, big taloned feet sinking into the mud without a care. It yanked its beak down into a patch of scrubby moss at the shore of a puddle, digging around for… grubs or whatever. He wasn’t sure what lived down there.

Careful to be quiet about it, Adal inched out of his bedroll and rose to his feet. He left his armor in its bag, though he did grab a sweater and pulled it on. The last of the spring chill hadn’t quite abandoned the mornings, and why not be comfortable when one had the option. He stepped into his boots but didn’t bother to lace them up.

Stepping over and past all the sleeping bodies, he nodded over to Calay, who sat upright beside the waning coals of the fire.

Struck by the sight of Calay resting on his boulder, Adal couldn’t help but be reminded of a crow or a vulture or some sort of carrion bird. He sat there sharply, just watching, and gave Adal only the faintest nod of recognition as he passed.

“Quiet night?” Adal asked, voice just shy of a whisper.

“Very.” Calay yawned and knuckled at an eye, his raven’s pose disrupted. “Geetsha didn’t see anything on first watch, either.”

Adal reckoned that was a good sign. He walked past the man and toward the trail, the way they’d come the night before. He walked down it and stepped around the trunk of a willow, just far enough from camp so as to be out of view. Then he unlaced the front of his longjohns and got to his morning business, urinating down into the moss.

Once he finished up, he took a single step away from the tree and back toward the trail. He never saw the snake coming. Truth be told, he didn’t even feel the bite until a couple startled seconds had passed. There was simply a surge of motion, a faint heat along his calf, and then a thrash and a warning hiss as he instinctively kicked the creature off his leg. Scaled body churning and writhing, it raced off into the water, leaving ripples in his wake.

Back at camp, people were stirring. Calay called over, asking if all was well.

Had he yelled? He must have yelled. Adal took a couple steps back down the path, then sank onto a fallen log. His heart began to pound as the reality of what had just happened set in.

“Adalgis?” Calay called again.

“I’m here,” he answered. “Snake. A… fucking snake. I’ve been bitten.”

“I’ll get my bag!” The urgency in Calay’s voice was worrying. Adal sat there, trying not to move, trying to recall what kind of snakes even lived in these marshes and exactly how venomous they were.

<< Chapter 7 | Chapter 9 >>

Chapter 7

The guide was not what Riss expected. She couldn’t have been older than twenty. And when she spoke, she sounded more like a teenager, speaking in a faintly squeaky voice that recalled nothing so much as a kid with a sore throat. This was the best Tarn had been able to find? Or was the region simply so sparsely populated that she was the only person familiar with the swamps that was willing to take the job?

At Riss’ side, Vosk seemed just as puzzled. Riss stepped forward and took the lead. The group behind them slowed to a gradual halt, gathered under the boughs of the twisted, bone-decorated tree.

“Hello there.” She gave the girl a breezy, confident smile. “You must be Geetsha. I’m Riss Chou. The Baron sent us.”

Now was not the time to project anything but calm, smooth confidence. Whatever their reservations were with Tarn’s choice of guard, that horse had bolted. They couldn’t back down now. Regardless of the money she’d lose, Riss wouldn’t do that to an old friend. And Tarn must have chosen her for a reason. He was a lot of things now, newly-titled and settling into civilian life, but their long talk in the castle had assured Riss that his edges had not been dulled. Settling into a noble’s life had barely even blunted him. Tarn must have chosen her for a reason.

“Riss, hello.” Geetsha shook her head back and forth for a moment, an odd gesture. She hadn’t said anything worth disagreeing with, had she? After a couple repetitions of that motion, it became clear that Geetsha was actually clearing her hair out of her eyes. She just used her whole body to do it, shaking like a dog emerging from water.

“You chose good days to come,” said Geetsha after a moment. “There shouldn’t be rain. Trails will still be fresh.

Riss glanced aside to Vosk, who gave the slightest nod.

“I could get us to where the skirmish took place,” he said. “But you might have a better or quicker way to get us there.”

“Skirmish. The skirmish.” Geetsha repeated the word a couple times. She had a trace of an accent, although Riss couldn’t place it. Just a faint wisp of difference to Vosk’s. The southern manner of speaking common tongues always sounded so thick and cottony, like they were speaking through a mouthful of mashed potato.

Geetsha momentarily closed her eyes. Riss studied her openly, unconcerned with being polite.

She looked about eighteen, with fair skin that seemed a stranger to sunlight. Her hair was shockingly white, like bleached flour. Though the clothes she wore were somewhat tatty–ragged edged canvas and hemp, it looked like–she was clean. Perhaps she was some sort of nomad. Riss had heard tales of them, during the war: mobile camps of swamp dwellers who moved through the thickest marshes on canoes, camping on dry land as they encountered it. Subsistence hunters. Rarely anything worth trading. Kept to themselves.

“So you live in here?” Riss asked, hoping to coax a bit more information from her.

“Yes,” said Geetsha. “We all do.”

“Your family?” prodded Vosk.

“There are more of us than you think.”

For some reason, Geetsha’s answer sent a little shiver up Riss’ back. What a weird way to phrase it. Weird and slightly ominous, however unintended.

“Do you have anything you’d like to pack on the birds?” Gesturing back toward the moa, Riss stepped aside some, so as to grant Geetsha a view of the crew at large.

“No.” Geetsha patted a heavy, drooping satchel that hung down at her hip. “This is it.”

It sure didn’t look like much. But Riss supposed that if the girl was native to these parts, she hadn’t need to pack much. Maybe she foraged most of what she ate. Perhaps she’d even share that knowledge, or trade it. They were well-provisioned, but it paid to keep a constant awareness of that sort of thing.

“Everyone,” Riss addressed the group with a lift of her voice. “This is Geetsha, the Baron’s guide. She’s a local in these parts.”

The mercenaries gave mumbled greetings. Torcha waved. There would be better time for introductions once they made camp for the night.

Riss peered past the sign, down toward where the trail descended into the swamp proper.

The change in scenery was drastic. While things had grown gradually murkier and wetter as they’d descended the incline, there was little standing water. The trees had still been sparse enough. But down past the sign, things grew wilder. Great, bent willows with twisted and exposed root structure seemed to jostle with one another for available soil space, like crooked teeth crowded into a child’s too-narrow jaw. Drifts of thick grass sprouted up seemingly at random, stiff and bladelike, and further off in the distance the first of the puddles reflected their brown-black environment.

As creepy as the bone-strewn sign in the trees was, Riss supposed it made sense. This was truly the boundary. Any further in without preparing and one was taking serious risks.

“So, Geetsha, the path my loggers took follows the trail, mostly. We stuck to it until we hit the spring, then–”

Geetsha cut Vosk off, nodding excitably.

“The spring, yes! I can get you there. Or the braided copses. Or the groves.”

Riss assumed they were speaking some sort of logger shorthand. Eyebrows arching some, she stepped a little closer to listen.

“Which groves?” Vosk sounded a little unsure. “The crawling groves, or…?”

“There are many groves.” Geetsha tilted her head, staring up at the sky for a time. “I speak of the grove where there were gunshots. And the fire was disturbed. And the tree ate your friend.”

It was quick, the way Vosk’s eyes went wide. And equally quick how he shuttered his expression, forcing his mouth flat. He inhaled sharply, nostrils flaring, and then nodded a single time.

“So you saw,” was all he had to say to that.

However young their guide may have been, Tarn had chosen her for a reason. She’d already been to the site of the attack.

“Take us straight there,” said Riss. “The quickest possible route.”

“I can do that,” Geetsha said. And then, a moment later: “What are you looking for?”

Riss blinked.

“We’re looking for the Baron’s logging party. And his son. Didn’t he tell you all that?”

“The Baron told me to meet you here. He said you were coming. He didn’t say why.”

Well, it was a sort of need-to-know basis operation. Still, that surprised Riss. Tarn hadn’t thought to warn her that there were bandits running around? Or perhaps he’d assumed that someone as well-traveled in these parts already knew. Either way, it was an intriguing detail.

One aspect of Tarn’s command she had always appreciated in the army was that he had respected her enough to give her details. He understood the unique working relationship she and Adal had developed, understood that they weren’t quite a standard sergeant and lieutenant, and he’d worked with that peculiar chain of command rather than demoting Adal for all but ceding the unit to her.

Tarn had let her into the map tents during meetings she hadn’t technically had rank worthy of attending. He’d shown her trust and respect.

It was time she proved worthy of that once more.

“It is a thick, wet walk,” Geetsha said, prompted by nothing.

“You’re right.” That must have been her way to hurry them up. Riss gestured to the others. “We ought to get moving.”

<< Chapter 6 | Chapter 8 >>

Chapter 6

After a long sleep and a meaty breakfast, Calay was ready to ride. Except they weren’t riding, they were walking. And walking was a less exciting prospect.

Slinging the larger of his bags onto one of the moa, he checked the interior of his satchel. Herbs for poultices, bandages, those sorts of things. And a few vials of precious human blood, pilfered from his various sources over the years. He didn’t trust them on the packbeasts. Or more accurately, he didn’t trust his mercenary colleagues not to accidentally unpack them. The satchel was annoyingly heavy against his lower back, but his line of work necessitated some sacrifice.

They followed a thin, meandering trail further and further from the road, into thickets that grew in both darkness and intensity with what felt like each individual passing step. The Baron’s man, Vosk, took the lead. Riss followed him, her pet Adalgis close behind. Then Torcha. Then Calay. Gaz marched along at the rear, hatchet on shoulder, ready for action.

Calay wasn’t sure “action” was an accurate thing to anticipate. But he wasn’t sure what was, so he didn’t bother saying anything.

The Baron’s man, his story had lodged a troubling hook in Calay’s mind. He tried not to think on it overmuch as he walked.

“This guide will be meeting us at the sign,” Vosk called back to the group while they walked. “Her name’s Geetsha.”

Pretty name. Calay wondered exactly what sort of person they were meeting. Someone who was apparently comfortable traversing this terrain alone and on foot. He’d grown up in some tough, filthy places and spent a tense few nights in Vasile’s darkest dungeon, but the idea of traveling alone in a fucked-up man-eating swamp was a little too much for him.

“What’s the sign?” Calay called to those up ahead. He imagined a pub sign with a little cartoon tree eating a little cartoon man. The Ravenous Shrub.

“You’ll know it when you see it. Sort of tough to put into words.” Well that didn’t explain much. Calay rankled, rolling his eyes.

He left the up-front chatter to the Baron’s envoy and Riss. Picking up his pace a little, he threaded across the fern-lined trail until he was walking alongside Torcha.

“So you grew up in these parts,” he started, tilting down somewhat to address the much-shorter woman.

“In a loose definition of these parts,” she said. “Semmer’s Mill may not have the castle, but it’s a larger town than Adelheim. More industry.” My, the way she instantly brought all that up seemed a little defensive.

“Don’t worry,” Calay reassured her. “I haven’t mistook you for one of the peasants.”

She laughed, a bright and airy sound. It was out of place, given their setting. In a good way.

They passed beneath a curtain of dry, wispy moss. The stuff appeared fragile as old cobwebs, draping from the boughs of a spindly tree. Calay brushed a strand of it aside, allowing Torcha to pass through. The trail curved to the left and they followed it, beginning to descend at a slight decline.

“I was more wondering if you’d ever had a reason to venture here.” Calay phrased it like a confession, as if he’d been caught red-handed expressing interest in the woman’s life. If she mistook it for flirting, well, that might only benefit him.

“Not into this particular swamp.” Torcha shook her shrouded head. “But some like it. Bogs and the like aren’t uncommon around here, if you couldn’t tell.”

“I was blessedly born on rockier shores.” Calay grinned a little.

“Most of the land from here to the southern coast is swampland of some type or another. And almost all the drier patches are farms. It’s not a bad climate for…” Torcha trailed off for a moment, lifting one hand, palm up. “Cotton and crap.”

“Cotton and crap.” Calay snorted.

“Semmer’s Mill is, as you might have guessed, a farming town. Grain mill and all. But the miller’s lifestyle never suited me.”

Calay took a moment to look her over, from the loose weave of her comfortable red-brown clothes to the long-barreled pistols holstered at her waist. In Vasile, she might have been mistaken for some sort of performer. They had a lot of those in the big town squares, sharpshooters showing off the dazzling accuracy of the latest newfangled firearms.

A cursory examination of Torcha’s belongings hinted that her guns were newer. She didn’t seem to carry a powder horn. The bandolier slung across her shoulder would have told more, but her cloak covered it. He was curious what kind of firepower she was packing.

“Riss called you her long arms specialist. I take it you served with her?” He was genuinely curious at this point, not just making conversation.

“Something like that.” He caught the very edges of a mischievous smile on Torcha’s mouth.

“Something like that?” He kept prodding her. “Last I checked you were either in the army or you weren’t.”

“I ended up in the army eventually!” Torcha laughed again, a lighthearted cackle. “It just didn’t start out that way. I just sort of tagged along.”

Calay didn’t get it. “A conscript?”

“More of a freelancer.”

Reaching the bottom of the shallow decline, they followed a series of serpentine bends in the trail that led to a sharper slope, navigated by means of a series of switchbacks. Calay, easy on his feet in his well-worn boots, kept up the pace with Torcha’s much-shorter footsteps.

He preferred walking beside her and Gaz. Bringing up the rear had a big disadvantage: every so often, Calay swore he could feel the moa’s eyes upon his back. The birds marched along quietly behind them, their clawed talons scraping on the hardpack of the path. Traveling with birds instead of horses wasn’t common on the coast. He’d seen them in use during his travels, of course, he wasn’t some bright-eyed foreigner all agog at all these inland customs.

But they were unusual. For starters, they were giant, but they weren’t heavy. Their footsteps were almost suspiciously light. Made it sound like they were padfooting around. Trying to sneak up on him on purpose. Too quiet, too light-footed, and the shine in their eyes was far too intelligent.

Calay tried not to dwell on the birds, kept his attention on Torcha.

“I don’t understand how you could be a freelancer in the…”

He trailed off. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, they reached the sign. Vosk was right. He knew it when he saw it.

“Mistress’ tits,” he murmured below his breath.

The sign in question was a series of skulls and bones, twisted skeletal remains woven through the softly-draped branches of a swamp willow. Vertebrae-adorned braids trailed down from thicker branches where big, horned ox skulls were lashed with rope. Sightless, sharper-featured skulls stared down at them. Calay considered their sharpened teeth and wondered what they once belonged to.

Gone yellow-brown with rot and age, the bones dangled there like eerie fruit. He spied a big, blunt-featured feline skull that had to be a swamp panther.

None of the skulls appeared human. That was a relief… wasn’t it?

Gaz loomed up behind them, slowing to a stop.

“You don’t see that every day,” he said after a moment’s silence.

Movement from the tree’s trunk. For a single, insane moment, Calay thought My gods, the trees are coming for us already!

But no. It was a hooded figure. A person just like them. Their guide, he supposed. The figure wore a shin-length green cloak with a heavy hood, though she swept it back as she approached them. She shook tangles of bone-white hair free from her collar, and the face revealed when she stepped into the light was almost just as pale. She was young-looking, round through the cheeks and eye sockets. Owlish.

The woman stopped and stared at them for a few seconds, a little wide-eyed. As if she’d expected fewer of them. Or expected something different.

“Hello!”

When she finally spoke, her voice was an odd chirp, young and awkward like a man’s on the cusp of puberty.

“This is what’s gonna guide us into the marsh?” Gaz spoke lowly in his ear. He may well have spoken for the both of them.

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