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.
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.