(We have some exciting news! Into the Mire has been nominated for a major literary reward! Check the comment section on this chapter for the news. :D)
The canyon funneled cool wind through the town of Frogmouth, fending off the midday heat. Riss rested in a patch of shade, sat beneath the twisted trunk of an old, leafless tree. She could almost relax around trees now. Almost. But when the wind blew and shivering twigs and branches shifted in the corners of her eyes, she caught herself looking. Checking. Just in case.
The tree was a tree. In Frogmouth, all was well.
Or at least as well as a town packed sardine-tight full of bandits could be.
Once Mafalda’s crew dropped them off, they’d set about finding a place to stay. Problem was, Frogmouth was full up at the moment. Just like Esilio, the town suffered from a serious case of scorpion-related overtourism. And as sun-baked and dehydrated as Riss and Adal still were, hiking up yet another hill only to be told by yet another innkeeper that they were all out of beds was beginning to sound like toturte.
They all met up at a crossroads, a narrow path chiseled beneath an overhang in the red stone. Gaz, Riss, and Torcha passed around a bottle of cold-brewed tea while waiting for word on whether Adal and Calay’s explorations had been any more successful.
A withered, sun-tanned old man hiked past them on the trail, then paused for a moment when his eyes passed over Riss’ face.
“Say,” he said. “You’re looking a little sunstruck.”
Riss rubbed beneath an eye, blinking at him, “Was a hard hike to get here,” she said. “Under a very hot sun.”
The old man whistled, then pointed down a side path, a winding series of switchbacks that disappeared down toward the canyon floor.
“Beautiful day for a swim,” he said. “If you’re new in town, there’s a swimming hole just down that-a-way.”
What kind of bandit hideout had a swimming hole? Riss’ confusion must have shown on her face, because the old man cackled, his Adam’s apple bobbling.
“Gotta beat the heat somehow, sweetheart,” he said. Then he tipped his hat to them and went on his way.
Torcha took a swig from the tea. “I could go for a swim,” she said. Riss, who balked at being called sweetheart even by people her own age whom she liked, remained silent.
Gaz made a skeptical noise and shoved up from his patch of shade. He walked across the dusty, worn track in the sandstone and peered over the edge. From her vantage point, all Riss could see was the tops of a few broad-leafed trees, occasionally stirred by the wind. She perked her eyebrows at Gaz when he returned, hoping for a report.
“Got to admit,” he said, “it looks shady down there.” He paused. “The good kind of shady.”
Every minute they waited for Calay and Adal, the wind seemed to grow drier and hotter. By the time they actually arrived, Riss had to admit that okay, she had spent every single minute pondering how nice it would be to go for a swim. When she proposed the idea to Adal, he smeared sweat off his brow and responded with enthusiasm. Calay responded with indifference. That was as close to consensus as Riss cared about achieving.
Mindful of their footing, they departed from the main track and began the descent down into the canyon, following the trail the oldster had pointed out. It was narrow and not maintained in any way, only a trail by virtue of use. An untold number of years’ worth of boots had worn the sandstone smooth, little divots carved into the middle of the path by erosion and rainfall. They had to walk single-file, frequently slowing their pace to an awkward shuffle. The moment they stepped beneath the canopy of the small, scrubby forest that clustered around the river, the relief was palpable: the temperature dropped, the wind took on a pleasantly herbal scent, and sunlight backlit the leaves a beautiful green-gold.
All told, the descent took them down about the height of a four or five story building. They met no one coming the other way. Riss kept a wary eye out the entire time, unsure exactly what they were getting themselves into. Frogmouth had a reputation. She wasn’t about to march into a trap even as her own sense of caution informed her that she was likely overreacting and the locals here had no reason to desire to trap her.
A pair of sun-tanned, chubby kids sat fishing on a half-rotted log at the riverside, glancing up when Riss stepped free of the trail and onto a broader, more intentional-looking trail. Someone at least had taken a machete to the undergrowth here, hacking a way through, so Riss could glance past them toward the cool blue-toned ribbon of the river itself.
The kids turned back to their fishing poles, utterly uninterested in the strangers that had just emerged. Riss supposed Frogmouth was a town of strangers. If they even live here themselves, they’re used to it, she thought.
A sudden, explosive splash sounded from further down the path, followed by a peal of feminine laughter.
“Sounds like a swimming hole all right,” said Adal. He fell into step at Riss’ side, waistcoat draped over his arm. In the heat and the wind, he’d stripped down to a loose linen shirt, gloves tucked into his sash. He looked calm. Relaxed. The sight of it sparked a smile up Riss’ mouth and chased away the lingering unease that she still felt when looking at him.
The path veered past a particularly thick copse of trees and then, quite abruptly, they were at the pool.
Here, the river–which was really more of a creek by size and depth–was broad and deep, passing through a natural basin worn in the sandstone. Years ago, some helpful souls had piled stone after stone into the water, forming a natural dam that trapped yet more water in the existing pool. This had the effect of stalling the current in all but the shore closest to where Riss stood, the pool sparklingly bright on top and deep enough that it was dark, dark blue on the bottom.
About a dozen people of various sizes, shapes, colors, and ages lounged on the smooth sandstone banks, some snoozing in the sun with hats propped over their faces. A couple of faces Riss vaguely recognized from Mafalda’s laboring crew relaxed in the shallows, trading hits off a pipe. And up on the canyon wall, ascending perilous handholds and footholds, a pack of skinny, barefoot kids hurled themselves into the water with impressive speed and force, no doubt the source of the massive splashes they’d heard while walking in.
“Well this is nicer than I expected,” Torcha said. She was already peeling off her outermost layers.
Calay arched his eyebrows at her, watching with an expression of dubious discomfort. “You’re just going to strip down in front of the locals?” he asked. “Not afraid of attracting any bandit admirers?”
Torcha flipped him off, then yanked the last of her shirts up and over her head. A few people had turned to glance their way, curious about the newcomers, but Riss noted that most of the swimmers were in similar states of undress. Nobody seemed to care.
“What do you think?” Adal asked Riss. “I feel uneasy going unarmed here, I have to admit. But…”
At that point, Torcha tossed her gunbelt down atop the pile of discarded clothing. Naked as the day she was born, she took off running for the shore and threw herself in. She surfaced a moment later, hair plastered to her face, and proceeded to splash off into a patch of shade. Her form could use work, Riss considered. And you could see her entire ass. But fuck it, looked like she was having fun.
“She’s easy to please,” said Calay, toying with the hem of his single leather glove.
She never got the chance to be a kid, Riss thought. She was defensive at times about Torcha’s immaturity, her impulsiveness. Perhaps a little jealous of how easily she could unwind and partake in bits and pieces of the childhood Riss herself hadn’t really had either.
That thought sealed the deal. Riss began unbuttoning her shirt. Adal tapped her shoulder, then ticked his chin off toward a tangle of fuschia bushes.
“Might as well not undress on the path,” he said. “Let’s claim a bit of beach for ourselves.” He scooped up Torcha’s things, draping her gunbelt over his shoulder. Once they’d found a smooth, pebble-free spot to sit, everyone unlaced their boots. In Calay’s case, that was all he did. He rolled up the cuffs of his pants, then dangled his feet down into the cool water, sighing in pleasure.
Riss, who opted to keep her undershirt and shortpants on, slouched down beside him. She wasn’t quite brave enough to leap in without testing the water first, doing so with a little poke of one toe. Calay chuffed amusedly as he watched her.
“What,” she said. “I don’t see you leaping in headfirst.”
Calay pointedly drummed his gloved fingers on the sandstone. “Don’t think that would be wise.”
Riss glanced down, followed the motion of his fingers. She remembered what laid beneath the surface of that glove, the strange rippled construct of bone and bark that composed Calay’s right hand.
“Go on,” he said. “Someone has to watch our guns anyhow. You go enjoy yourself.”
Dipping her feet deeper into the water, Riss found it cooler than air temperature but not cold. Levering up with her arms, she slowly pushed off the sandstone and eased in…
… And promptly ducked her head underwater. She’d misjudged how deep the pool was. Coughing and sputtering, she gave a couple hard kicks and then transitioned into easily treading water. Droplets trickled into her eyes; she wiped them away with a hand. Squinting down, she tried to wrap her mind around what she saw. The bottom of the pool looked so close. But a moment’s further study revealed what had tricked her: the water was so clear she’d underestimated its depth. This was never a problem on the Deel, which was thick with algea and often ran muddy with overflow.
Above her, Calay snickered. She flicked a halfhearted splash at him, then pushed off the sandstone bank with her legs and kicked into a few hard, powerful strokes, crossing the pool to where Torcha loitered. A pair of large splashes behind her sounded the arrival of Gaz and Adal.
Torcha was already in conversation with one of the locals, leaning on her forearms and making small talk. Riss recognized the woman Torcha spoke to–she’d been on Mafalda’s other wagon, a bald gal whose name Riss wasn’t sure she’d been told. Riss gave them both a lazy wave upon arrival.
“Don’t mind me,” she said. “I’m just here for the shade.”
Torcha grinned toothily. “Salka here was just telling me there might be food later.”
The bald woman, who was broad of build and covered liberally in fading tattoos, laughed a single booming time.
“Might,” she said. “But that was before you invited three more.”
Torcha casually tossed her damp hair over a shoulder, then bound it up in a bit of cord.
“Even better,” she said. “There’s actually four more of us.”
“You’ll have to excuse her,” said Riss, her voice warmed with relaxed amusement. “We’ve been cooped up on our lonesome for a while. She gets a little stir-crazy.”
Salka rolled her shoulders in a what-can-you-do shrug, then let her eyes slouch closed. She stood on the bottom of the pool, which was much shallower this close to the homemade dam. Riss tilted into a lean beside her, though she gave plenty of distance.
“One of our boys got lucky earlier,” Salka said, voice so deep it was competition for Gaz. “Bagged the biggest pig I’ve ever seen. We’re so laden from our dig that we couldn’t carry all the meat out if we wanted to.”
Riss hummed in consideration. “That reminds me,” she said. “I thanked your boss earlier, but I wanted to pass it on to you and all the other diggers as well: thanks for turning around for us. Mafalda said she was missing out on spending time with her family? That’s huge.” She upnodded, a gesture of respect to the woman. “You put your necks out for us. We won’t forget that.”
Salka’s mouth lifted, her smile easy and broad-lipped. “It’s what you do in the Flats, love,” she said. “No room for error out there. Even less room for indifference.”
She could hear it then, buried but faint: traces of a Flats accent. Riss was by no means an expert on the Flats nomads and their customs, but she’d heard bits and pieces over the years.
“Makes sense,” she said. “Could be you out there one day.”
“Mmm-hm,” Salka boomed. “Anyway, as I was saying to your friend. Once the boss comes by, we’ll see what we’re doing with the pig. Only roasting pit big enough in this pothole is communal anyhow.”
Riss and her people certainly weren’t lacking in food at the moment, though it was only on account of not lacking for money. They had more than enough to sustain themselves in Frogmouth for however long was necessary. She tried not to linger overlong on the subject of money, though, because the loss of that wagon came rearing right back up to kick her in the gut.
She was interested in the dinner for non-monetary reasons. There was no place like a big communal meal to get a feel for a place and the arteries of its loyalty. With a little luck, the event would give her the opportunity to see whether Rill’s people kept to themselves or mingled with the locals. And who among them was best to approach, if the latter.
“Well I’m sure Torcha told you we’ve been to all three hells and back trying to find a place to stay.” Riss yawned into the crook of an arm. “Suppose if we can’t find anywhere to bunk down, you might as well send our dinner invitation here. We may just pitch a tent.”
Salka’s nose wrinkled. She quickly shook her head. “Wouldn’t do that,” she said.
Riss perked her eyebrows, curious. “Why? Think we’ll get jumped?”
At that, Salka snorted out a laugh. “In a way.” She grimaced. “If what mosquitos do can be considered jumping. It’s too hot and breezy for ‘em now, but they come in droves when the wind settles in the evening.”
Torcha, who’d fallen silent in favor of listening to Riss and Salka talk, pulled a face.
“Thanks for the warning,” Riss said. “Well, this place isn’t huge. I’m sure if your boss says the whole town’s welcome for chow, we’ll get word somehow.”
An excited woop sounded from up above. A skinny, dark-skinned kid plummeted down from the canyon wall and into the pool, bombing them all with a splash. Torcha cackled and spat out water. Riss just shook her hair out.
“Shouldn’t be too long,” Salka said. She tilted her head up, elevating her eyes toward where the divers hunkered on their little cliff. She pointed at one particular figure, taller than most of the others. A broad-shouldered but leanly-built man wearing nothing but a pair of raggedy cut-off breeches proceeded to shove another, much smaller figure off the ledge, laughing raucously as he did it.
Riss cocked her head to one side. “That’s your boss? The shover or the shove-ee?”
All three of them watched as one of the kids took revenge for his friend, planting both hands on the big man’s lower back. He shoved hard and the man went down, sailing through the air. He pencilled his legs and arms against his torso before he landed, plummeting beneath the surface. When he bobbed back up, both the youths he’d ambushed proceeded to rain splashes down upon his face.
“He’s a bit of both,” said Salka. “But he’d better stop fart-assing around. Pig like that’ll take hours to roast; we gotta get started if we’re gonna.”
“I have to admit,” Riss said, “he has my sympathies. Rough to pull a man out of this cool water on such a hot day.”
“Eh. He’ll survive.” Salka turned toward the divers, who were now dunking one another on the shore of the pool. She turned her bellow on them with ease. “Oi! Noose! You find a gutter for that hog yet or what?”
Water whipping off his hair, the man turned his head toward them. He rolled his eyes when he spotted Salka, made a shooing motion.
“I get it, I get it!” he called. “You’re hungry! … But yes, they’re working on it now.”
Riss watched, mesmerized. The man’s hair was dark to begin with, darker still with water, plastered to his shoulders. He wrung it out, then wiggled a finger in his ear. She took him in for a moment, studying his face. He had thick, expressive eyebrows that moved and dipped when he laughed. His cheeks were red from either sun or laughter or exertion. Though he was paler than a lot of the swimmers loitering nearby, his skin had an olive undertone, the coloring common to those who grew up along the Janel coast. The coloring Calay might have one day attained if he ever let himself get a little sun.
The posters didn’t do him justice. Didn’t capture the way he moved, the easy athleticism and confidence. They made him look like a long-nosed, big-chinned, big-eyebrowed ruffian.
They got the stubble right, though.
Well fuck me, Riss thought. This child-dunking, pig-barbecuing shirtless horsearound was Nuso Rill.