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.

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