They walked on through Swampside with no further incidents. In, fact people melted before them on the street, and even the hawkers quieted their cries as they passed; Raah’s word obviously carried weight here. After about half an hour they reached the edge of town, where a final clearing marked the start of the riverside trail that led south to “deep” Swampside.
Since there was no one else in sight, they stopped there to adjust their small day-packs and their clothing. The men changed into high boots and stuffed their pants into them, and Dorrie removed her veil and fancy skirt to reveal some practical pants underneath. Having been warned about biting insects, all wore long sleeves – for Hox, long sleeves came down to only past his elbow, but he was used to that. It was nearing midday, so Jorac suggested they eat their lunch, some barely edible sandwiches they’d bought from a street vendor, washed down by water from the flasks everyone carried.
As they were finishing up, Jorac spoke to the group. “I was hoping we could avoid this, but we’re going to have to go at least a little way into the actual swamp. I did a little reading about it, but I didn’t find out much that would help us. Mostly they said it’s dangerous, and you should have a guide, and you shouldn’t touch anything you don’t have to. So all I can tell you is, keep alert and don’t touch anything you don’t have to. We’ll stop at the first place we can and do our test.” And with that, they set off again.
The road began as wide, solid ground, but it soon narrowed to a winding trail, squishy in spots, that went around hummocks and through patches of sedges, some taller than even Hox. As before, Hox was at the rear and Schrog took the lead. The pace he set was slower than Jorac expected, and Schrog developed an odd head-bobbing pattern that confused him until he realized Schrog was scanning the swamp around them and the ground ahead, almost before every step.
This part of the trail showed frequent use, with matted vegetation or bare ground on the path itself, and nearby plants cut or trampled back from the margins. Sometimes small paths branched off to the side; Jorac wondered if they were game trails or led to some swamp-dweller’s house, but decided to wait rather than interrupt Schrog’s concentration with questions.
It was a beautiful sunny day, but it was beginning to be humid and quite warm. Jorac had been told that the wizard spell that gave Vaggert perfect weather gradually faded beyond the city’s borders. He found his clothes beginning to stick to him, and there was a rich, swampy background smell of decaying vegetation. Some annoying gnats buzzed around them, but there was no other wildlife to be seen.
After Jorac idly complained about the gnats, Veseen said “Hold up, please. Last week I learned a warding spell that might work here.”
He pulled some spell component out of a small pouch he carried, and explained, “I’ve gotten to the point I don’t need the components for a few spells, but this one is still new to me. This is powdered fly wings; it should work for this.”
He had everyone stand well back from him, then concentrated and slowly, carefully cast a spell. When he motioned the group back to him, Jorac saw that a small circle around the apprentice was clear of insects. Other people could enjoy it too – but only if they stood right next to him.
“I’m sorry,” Veseen said dejectedly. “I wasn’t trying to be selfish, but I don’t think I helped anyone else with that. I was hoping I could make the circle bigger.”
“No matter,” Jorac said, “it was worth a try.” He’d still rather work with the self-effacing youngster than any number of more powerful wizards. They all shrugged and walked on – at least when they were walking it took a little while for the bugs to find them.
It would have been a pleasant stroll except for the gnats, the squishy path, the increasingly powerful smell of decaying vegetation, and Schrog’s obvious concern. At the first dry wide spot outside of town, a lumpy raised area with wide-based trees all around, Jorac called a halt so they could do a manite test.
To provide darkness, Jorac had checked a small tent out of the City Guard’s supply depot and asked Hox to carry it. When they unfolded it, it proved to be a floppy canvas box tent, now very worn. To assemble it, they’d have had to find and cut poles to tie it up to, which seemed like too much trouble, so they merely used it as a big canvas wrap. Hox was too tall to fit inside, so stood guard. The other four got inside, using Dorrie’s walking stick to hold up the middle, and managed to get it fairly dark. After a little while for their eyes to accustom, Dorrie did the honors again while Veseen shielded Jorac, and they marked the direction on the ground with a stick.
The inside four were happy to emerge from the canvas – it had been stifling inside – and the group talked while they folded it up and stowed it. Their mark on the ground definitely didn’t point back the way they’d come, but it was hard to tell exactly what direction it did point. They squinted up at the sun and tried to figure it out. Veseen apologetically explained that a competent wizard could have told the exact direction, but he hadn’t learned that skill yet. They finally decided the direction was still south, or perhaps southeast, further into the swamp but somewhat away from the river – crosswise to the trail at this point.
They stood and gazed at the thick, marshy vegetation in that direction. Everyone looked reluctant to go on, and Jorac felt the same way.
“Well, that’s it, unless we can get a guide. Schrog, if we go back to Swampside, can we hire a guide?”
“Yeah, dere might be somebody in town. Take a while to find ‘em, maybe dey could be trusted, maybe not.” He looked down and kicked the ground a little. “But dere used to be somebody lived out dis way who could help. We can go see if dey’re still dere.”
“Who is it?” Dorrie asked him curiously. Jorac had warned her about asking “pre-Constable” questions, but this didn’t exactly qualify, and Jorac wanted to know too, so he didn’t intervene.
Schrog looked around, then up at the trees, and said, “Ummm. Err, ‘twere somebody I knowed, before-like.”
Jorac didn’t like to see Schrog uncomfortable like this, but he needed to know. “Schrog, none of us has asked questions about your past, and we aren’t going to. But it’s pretty obvious you know this area and you still know some folks in Swampside. You’re our expert: we need to know if we should go on, go back to Swampside and try to get a decent guide, or head back to Vaggert and get a whole squad to help us. You’ve been a constable for what, eight years now?”
Schrog nodded, tight-lipped, and said nothing.
“Do you think someone living deep in the swamp is still here eight years later – and would help us?”
Schrog spoke slowly, reluctantly, picking his words carefully. “Umm. I kept my ears open. Dat’s all. I nebber worked down dis way as a constable, made sure o’ dat, but I knows a guy who knows a guy, dat kind of t’ing. I used to know dis lady who worked de swamp out hereabouts. Last I heared, maybe six months back, she still dere.”
Jorac smiled at him encouragingly; Schrog seemed to be emotionally touchy about this whole topic.
Veseen asked, “What can people do out here for a living? It seems very – uh, harsh.”
Schrog’s voice picked up, happier now not to be talking about himself. “Mostly de huntin’ fer sump’n or anudder. Big damn cow-like t’ing wit’ fat horns live out dere, good meat, good money fer de horns. Dere de big frogs, size of yer head, and de giant frogs, swallow yer head in one bite. Meat on dem no good, taste swampy, but keep you alive, and de frogskin worth some coin, de bigger de better. Big cats hunt dem frogs too. One guy used to hunt de cats but I t’ink de cats, dey got him.
“Den dere’s some folks hunt fer plants, gots to be careful ‘cause dey gots all kinds of spikes or poison, and some o’ dem vine-traps or honeyplants will eat folks, but if you knows what’s what you can make good coin dere. Plants don’t move, mostly, ‘cept for a few, so takes more smarts but less. . .” – he tailed off.
Dorrie suggested, “Agility?”
“Right, less agility. Good fer de older folks, or cripples, who don’ wanna live in de town. Den, some folks hunt de lizards and snakes, or de little colored frogs. Poisonous, most of ‘em, don’ even want to touch ‘em. Sells ‘em to de places up in Pigtown, I hear dey goes into dyes or wizard stuff.
“An den dere’s de idjits who go huntin’ for stuff in de old city ruins. Dangerous place, dem ruins. A few walls and buildin’s still standin’ dere, but mostly just rubble under de water. But every couple years, somebody comes in with a bit of jewelry or a fancy glass bottle that ain’t broke, keeps ‘em in drink for a month. ‘Twas wizards lived dere, so some fancy stuff laying around. Every kid in Swampside has a go at dat, first chance dey get, and mostly dey come back all cut up on de rubble, maybe sick wit’ de cuts goin’ bad. Some don’ come back at all.”
Jorac asked gently, “So what does the lady you know out here do?”
Schrog took a deep breath. “She works de plants. And she does a bit o’ healin’, cuts and bruises, potions fer bellyaches and fevers. She must be seventy or eighty now, dam’ old fer Swampside.” He looked like he was going to say more, but stopped.
Dorrie had been listening to all this with interest, and asked “How does a woman out here keep safe? I know the kind of men who’d come to this area, and they aren’t the type to just leave someone be, am I right?”
“Aye, you gots the right of it. Dere’s a gang or two, but lots of loners too. Anybody hurts de healer lady, dey gots big problems wit’ everybody. But still dere be some idjits, so anybody live out here, dey sets up traps, fer de animals or de men, and sleeps light. You finds a shack or sump’n out here, you waits till de owner gives de okay before gettin’ too close, or maybe he just finds yer body.”
They were interrupted by a call from up the path. “I’m coming through. Stevens.”
Schrog called back, “Stevens” and said more quietly, “Means even-Stevens, he won’t mess wit’ us if we don’ mess wit him. If it’s just de one guy, just let him by,” and he motioned the group to the side of the clearing. A small thin man with a scarf covering his head cautiously approached, carrying a crossbow in his hand, though pointed at the ground. He scuttled across the clearing and up the path toward town, keeping as far away from Jorac’s group as he could. As he disappeared up the path they could see he had a small overstuffed pack on his back. Schrog had drawn his sword but kept it down at his side; he sheathed it when the man had passed.
Hox wondered aloud, “What did he hunt?”
Schrog answered confidently, “Poisonous, whatever ‘twere. See dat pack? Stuffed fat with dried grass, anudder bag inside. Prolly snakes or sump’n nasty.”
After a moment, Jorac looked at him and said gently, “So, would you recommend we try to find the healer lady instead of going back to town?”
“Well, she used to live down de way we’s goin’. It was left, right, left, right, right – dose be de turns you take at de forks. ‘Tain’t too far, maybe a half hour in. Wanna try it?”
Jorac looked at his group – no one objected – so he shrugged and said, “Looks like we’re willing. As long as we get back while there’s still good light, okay?”
“Yeah, spooky out here in de dark. Don’ touch nuttin’, got it? In de wet spots, jus’ be real careful, and ya take quick little steps. Follow me close-like, maybe two-t’ree steps back.”
With that they set off down the path, trying to follow Schrog’s lead and be careful at the same time. Travel became increasingly difficult as they turned off the main path and onto less-used side trails. Still, the path was fairly distinct, once they got used to seeing it amid the vegetation.
The first two turns they were to take were fairly clear, but at the third fork the path forked into three, not two, and both of the two left forks seemed equally traveled. After they’d looked around a bit and found no clues, Jorac said to Schrog, “Maybe you can scout ahead? We should do the manite test again anyway; I’m pretty sure we’ve already lost our bearings.”
“Yeah, okay. Don’ touch nuttin’, don’ go nowhere. You’se could sit under dat tree dere, dat’s safe grass. Somebody comes by, do Stevens wit’ ‘em, let ‘em by, but don’ trust ‘em – take yer sword out, right? Back in a few minutes.” He took the left-most trail, and was quickly out of sight.
The rest moved under the big spreading tree and got out the tent to perform another manite test. This time only Dorrie, Veseen, and Jorac were inside the canvas, so Hox helped by holding up the fourth corner from outside. The roof flopped a bit, but after a few tries, the inside three agreed on a direction and marked it on the ground with a stick.
When they emerged into the daylight, blinking, they started to discuss what direction the line was. “It’s a good thing we tested again,” Dorrie said, “I would have sworn our direction was over there.” She pointed off to her side.
“Yeah,” Jorac said, “lots of turns and no landmarks. That’s why we could really use a guide who knows this area.” He picked up a corner of the tent. “Let’s see if we can get this stupid thing folded tighter this time.”
Hox started straightening the canvas, finally lifting it above his head, when his hand struck the tree limb overhead. He dropped the canvas and said “Ow!” He brought his arm down and looked at the underside of his forearm. Clinging there was a small, bright orange and green frog, not much bigger than Jorac’s thumb tip. Hox vigorously shook his arm, then flung it out to the side, which finally made the frog fly off into the bushes.
“That thing hurt!”
“Let me look at it,” Dorrie said. “Hmmm, I can see the mark it made. Jorac, give me your handkerchief.”
Jorac complied, saying “Blot, not wipe, right?”
Dorrie nodded, folded the handkerchief into a pad, and blotted the spot on Hox’s arm a few times. When she was done, she looked at the handkerchief with distaste, then folded it in on itself and offered it to Jorac, who shook his head.
“I think that one can stay here – leave it under that bush. Let’s get the canvas folded up and get ready to go. Hox, you just sit there.”
They did as Jorac said, and then they all sat under the tree and waited.
Veseen was obviously worried, and couldn’t sit still. He asked, “Should we yell for Mr. Schrog?” and was disappointed in the negative answer. Waiting was obviously hard on the boy – well, it was hard on all of them, but he showed it more.
Schrog returned a couple of minutes later; by that time Veseen was almost running in circles in the clearing, and there was a raised red welt on Hox’s arm.
“I gots it figgered – hey, what happened?”
Jorac explained about the frog, and what they’d done.
“You done okay. Lemme see dat arm. Hurt much?”
Hox said, “Kind of like fire. Tingles, too.”
“Put dat hand on de back o’ yer neck. Keep it dere – keeps de arm up, keeps de blood out. Let’s go – I knows de way now. If de lady still dere, she can help wit’ dat arm.”
As they fell into marching order, Veseen asked, “Will he be okay, Mister Schrog?”
“Orange ones is bad,” was all he said before heading down the middle path.
* * *
Jorac noticed that Schrog set a faster pace this time; either he was confident in this part of the path or worried about Hox. They took two more right forks, and in another ten minutes or so came to a waist-high fence, woven out of some sort of cane or thick grass. There was a wooden gate in the fence, and a simple sign with the word “Madouve” and below it, a large “X” with a closed top. Down the lane beyond the gate was a small weather-beaten house perched on stilts a few feet above the swamp. Beside it was an even more ramshackle small outbuilding, also on stilts.
Schrog stopped, pointed toward the house, and said to Jorac, “You de leader, you call.”
Jorac shouted out, “Hello! Anyone home?”
A lumpish figure came from behind the house, covered in loose, ill-fitting fabric. On her head (Jorac assumed it was female, but he couldn’t really tell) was a large hat with a veil all around that seemed attached to the oversized tent-like garment she was wearing. Jorac supposed it kept out insects, which could be quite useful.
“Whatchoo got?” The voice was old and cracked.
Schrog shouted back, “Got coin, guy with frog trouble. Orange one.”
“How many of you?”
“Two city guys, me, an ol’ lady, and a boy.” In a quieter tone he added, “Sorry kid, ma’am. Wanna seem harmless.”
“Come in, just de hurt one. Move slow. Keep on de path.” She moved around to the front of the house and picked up a crossbow there. She held it down in front of her, not threatening but ready for trouble.
Schrog called out “First guy comin’,” and opened the gate. Hox’s arm had a large ugly red and purple lump now, like a third of an apple just below the skin, and his normal beefy facial color was looking gray.
They watched as Hox stumbled up the lane, and at the healer’s direction, sat down on a small bench outside the house. He sat down hard, and the bench promptly slid to one side and collapsed, dropping him to the ground with a sound of pain they heard from the gate, forty or fifty paces away. The healer walked over behind him and looked at the arm, then yelled out, “De lady and de kid next. Den the townie with de coin. You, swampie, last. Wait till dey get here.”
Jorac followed Dorrie and Veseen up the path, and at her gesture sat on the ground next to Hox – but not before he jingled his bag of coins. His close-up look at the healer didn’t reveal much. Her veil was too thick to see through, and her crossbow was a double one; it had two shots, and the bolts had some shiny paste smeared on the metal tips.
He looked more carefully at the crossbow. It was an unusual design, with a top and a bottom bow, and grooves for bolts above and below. It looked vaguely like two children’s hunting crossbows grafted together, and was probably no heavier than a single-shot military model, but of course less powerful. The power wouldn’t matter much if you could hit what you aimed at, assuming your target wasn’t armored. What an old healer lady was doing with it was anyone’s guess.
Jorac didn’t like sitting on the ground. He was glad he’d practiced throwing the dagger on his belt from a sitting as well as standing position. He didn’t think there was any real danger here, but he kept looking around to make sure no one else was around, sneaking up on them. If the old lady started aiming that crossbow at one of his people, he wasn’t going to let her shoot without a fight. But he’d much rather work with her; Hox needed help.
To Dorrie and Veseen, she said, “You two sit dere too. Ordinarily I’d offer you a bench, but you can see what happened.” Her voice was nasal and cracked, and her accent, though less pronounced, was similar to Schrog’s – Jorac was starting to identify it as a Swampside accent.
When Schrog started up the path, she backed away from them to watch him and Veseen whispered, “Why is she doing this – and why are we letting her?”
Dorrie spoke out loud. “Think, boy. There’s five of us, one of her – she’s just being careful. Surprised she didn’t make most of us wait down there. Anyway, we need her help. Look at Hox.”
Hox had put is hand behind his neck again and was obviously in pain. His eyes were closed and even though he was seated, he was swaying back and forth, his breathing deep and forced. Jorac guessed he wanted to moan in pain but was too proud.
When Schrog arrived, the healer pointed to the ground and said, “Sit. Speak about de frog.”
Jorac spoke up. “It was orange, about this big” – he showed by holding his fingers apart – “and had little jagged green stripes down its back.”
“Green stripes, you sure?”
“It was right in front of my face. Four green stripes.”
She nodded. “Wait here.” As she moved sideways to go toward the house, Schrog stirred a bit on the ground and she whipped around and started to raise the crossbow. “Stay still, dammit!”
Very slowly, Schrog put his palms on the ground and shifted himself around. “Just sittin’. Ain’t goin’ nowheres.”
She nodded. “Best not.”
She disappeared inside, and Jorac immediately noticed a rustle at the reed window blind – the first thing she’d done was to check to see if anyone moved. Smart. A couple of minutes and a few checks at the window later, she came out with a wet piece of cloth and a small earthenware bottle. She was still carrying the crossbow in her other hand and still wearing the hat and veil. Jorac wondered what she looked like and why she stayed covered that way; it must have been uncomfortable and hard to see through.
She wiped the cloth on Hox’s arm, and handed the bottle to Dorrie and said, “Feed dat to him. Shake it up first. ‘Tis a double dose, about right for his size.” She backed up, put her back against the house, and watched them, crossbow still in hand.
Dorrie, stood up slowly, shook the bottle, twisted off the stopper, and helped Hox drink it. He grimaced and said “Bleagh! Water.” She reached behind him, found his waterskin, and opened it for him. His injured arm stayed up, and he used his other hand to take a drink of water and rinse his mouth.
“What is that stuff?” Hox looked at the bottle. “Tastes foul. Will it help?”
The healer answered him. “It be what keeps you alive. Lucky you came here straight-aways. Caught it early, you be sick now, better tomorrow. Arm good in a couple days.” She went over and sat on her steps, where she could see all of them, resting the crossbow on her knee.
“Dizzy.” Hox pulled up his knees and put his head between them.
Slowly, mindful of the crossbow, Jorac reached for his bag of coins. “Thank you for helping him. What do we owe you? And what should we call you? Are you called Madouve?”
“You not be swampies, or you ask de price first. We’ll talk about dat later. What I want to know. . .” – she ripped off her hat and veil, and her voice changed to that of a much younger woman – “. . . is what the hell happened to my mother. Schrog, you bastard, you better start talking.”
Jorac’s an ordinary city constable in the city of Vaggert; he’s allergic to magic but still takes the job of Wizard Constable, working for the city’s overbearing, officious wizards. He encounters cutthroats, slavers, poison frogs, crazed wizards, hidden beauty, and much more - this is not stereotypical “epic fantasy”, it’s a fast-paced, fun adventure story.
Visit http://www.wizardconstable.com/neatorama.html for an index to all posts for this book, maps and related info, and special prices for Neatorama readers.
Check out previous chapters of Wizard Constable right here., or visit the Wizard Constable Website for chapter links + maps.