The crossbow was now pointed directly at Schrog, and the old healer lady was revealed to be a young, very attractive woman with short, dark hair. Her eyes glinted, and her mouth pursed in anger – it looked to Jorac as if she was struggling to control herself. It took just a second for him to get over his surprise, then he causally reached down and put his hand on his dagger – just in case.
Schrog said nothing at first, his face amazed. With his voice almost breaking, he said, “Kimie, you’re alive!”
“Fockin’ right I’m alive. No thanks to you. One day I’m keeping house with my mum, and the next I’m carried into the swamp in a sack and left with a half-crazy old lady. And told not to ask any questions, nor go back, ever. What happened!” She lifted the crossbow and sighted it straight at Schrog, who looked back without blinking.
He drew his knees up and put his arms around them. In a tight, choked voice he said, “Kimie, I may deserve killin’, but not for your ma. Was de first decent t’ing I done. Gimme a min here.”
“It’s Kimma. I ain’t a little girl any more.” Without the old-lady voice, she pronounced her words a little better, but still had the accent. The crossbow didn’t waver at all; it was still pointed at Schrog’s face.
Schrog nodded and wiped his tearing eyes with his sleeve, looked at the ground in front of him, and continued in a firmer tone. “Dis is all eight years ago. Kullo had been talkin’ about a big score, I didn’t know from where. Den your ma came to me, middle o’ de night. She was hurt bad. Said she just killed Fergram, remember him? Short guy, liked his drink. He’d got drunk and let it slip dat Kullo’s new big score was sellin’ girls – not pimpin’ em, dat be too easy to trace, but sell em as slaves, put em on a boat and gone. Young girls ten, twelve years old. Had him a buyer and all. You was gonna be one of dem. Anyway, Fergram talked too much, and yer ma sticks him with a knife. Didn’t kills him quick enough, ‘cause he stuck her too. She comes to me, says to get you outta dere. So I did.”
He looked up at her “Kimma, she had a big knife hole in her belly. Blood and shit comin’ out of it. You know what dat mean. Best wizard in de city might save her, but prolly not. She say to save you, don’ worry about her. So, I did what she said.”
He raised his hands helplessly. “I t’ink, where I’m gonna hide a li’l girl? I remember Miz Madouve, she owed me – helped her out of a couple o’ jams, stopped a guy from robbin’ her one time. So I puts you in dat sack, and runs out here, in de dark. No moon dat night. Got lost. Found her place in de mornin’. Had to leave you wit’ her.
“Time I got back to de place, your ma was dead, and a bunch of shit started happenin’. . .” He stopped and shook his head. “Anyways, dat’s what happened to yer ma.”
Kimma had lowered the crossbow by this point, but it was still held at the ready. “Kullo wouldn’t do that to me . . . would he? He was nice to me, and him and my ma were. . .”
“Lovers? Friends? Not Kullo. Kimma, your ma and my ma, dey be whores. Whores ain’t got no friends ‘cept each other. Dat’s why dem two so tight. My ma be older, but dey be like sisters. Kullo, he may be a good customer, friendly, but not no friend.”
Kimma thought about this for a little while. “I wondered if it was you carrying me in that sack. I was so scared! You never said a word, all night. Miz Madouve wouldn’t ever tell me, neither. Said whoever took me wanted me alive and safe, dat’s all she’d say.”
“I figgered it best dat way. Dey finds you, den you cain’t tell no one.”
“So what happened to your ma? She still there?”
Schrog shook his head slightly. “Remember I said a bunch of shit went down? Dat was part of it. My ma, she was gettin’ to where she did mostly cookin’ and not workin’ de customers much. Dey finds Fergram dead, and yer ma leave a blood trail to our place and down to de kitchen. Dat’s where dey find her, dead.
“So they rousts my ma, and she don’ know nuttin’, but dey figures she does. Dey takin’ her into de swamp, where dey can get rough wit’ her, and I’m comin’ back, and I sees dem first. . .” He paused a moment. “Dere was just de two of dem.”
A long silence here let the listeners fill in what Schrog left unsaid. He must have gotten part of this story from one of them, and they must have not returned.
Finally Kimma said, “So then what happened? Where’s your ma?”
Schrog spoke slowly. “If you go way, way past dem sunken city ruins, up past dat broke-down hill an’ down de other side, you kin work your way up to de hills above de city. Hill dere be steep, broken, but you kin make it. Took us t’ree days. Eatin’ dat nasty giant frog meat, got sick from de water, but we made it. Dat way, dey t’ink she just disappeared. She gots a cookin’ job at some noble’s house now, doin’ good. I sees her maybe t’ree-four times a year, but gots to keep it quiet. . . Maybe not hafta keep so quiet no more.” He looked at Jorac, who nodded.
Jorac decided he had something to add at this point. “Kullo was executed last week. The charge was slavery, escape, and murder. Repeat offender.”
Schrog continued, “You know I’m a constable now? Passed de test and all.”
Jorac added, “Got a good reputation. Fair man, square man. Good worker.”
Schrog smiled and continued. “Got a wife too. Two stepkids, one o’ my own.” This was something Jorac didn’t know; like most constables, Schrog didn’t talk about his home life much at work.
Schrog went on. “Miz Madouve, she supposed to get you a city place. Gave her most o’ my coin, a fair pile. Kept lookin’ fer you in de city; one o’ de reasons I took de constable job was so’s I could look around. Never found you, after a while I give up; I told her to make sure you was hard ta find, and I figgered she did it. Kept an ear out for Miz Madouve’s doin’s, kept hearing she still livin’ alone in de swamp, but o’ course I nebber came myself to check with Kullo around. So what happen’ wit’ her?”
Kimma smiled a tight smile. “I guess I’m Miz Madouve now. She taught me how to pick the plants, and mix up the potions and when to use what – got a garden right here with some of the plants I need. And she taught me how to get by with the swamp folks. I have a couple of outfits that make me look like an old lady, and with my hair short like it is, and some face painting, I passed – she said I was her sister, come to visit. There’s this one kind of tree sap dries clear and shrinks up; she’d paint lines on my face and I’d look like a wrinkled old prune. That’s how she taught me the swamp; I used to go out with her every few days, and once in a while on my own.
“But she always made me hide in the house whenever someone came around here – I don’t think very many folks ever knew there were two of us lived here. I used to whine to her about that. Then one time I seen two men come up, grab her, throw her down, start to rip off her clothes – and she an old lady, and ugly. I used to complain about how heavy that double crossbow was, too. Stopped complaining after that. Needed two shots, had ‘em.” She nodded once, with grim satisfaction.
“But she disappeared a few months back. She was getting kind of foggy in the head, went out one day and didn’t come back.” Kimma choked up a little, then pushed on with her story.
“So I worked on the voice” – her voice temporarily went back to the cracked old-lady intonation – “and I puts on dat fly-proof hat she wore, and now I’m de healer-lady.” She walked over and put the crossbow in a rack against the side of the house. “I tried looking for her, looked around all her usual places, for days and days. She was a tough old bird, but the swamp takes more than it gives.”
Schrog nodded emphatically. “True dat. Dese folks never heard dat before, but all swampies know it. Most of dem swampies says dey wanna get out, but wait to do it rich. Lots don’ make it out, and damn few rich.”
Kimma said, “So, Schrog, what are you doing out here, with dese folks? Seems a pretty odd bunch. . .” She stopped herself. “Oh, first we best get the big guy in the shack there, otherwise you gots to carry him. That potion kind of puts you to sleep.”
They roused the groggy Hox and led him to the outbuilding and up the steps, which creaked a bit but held his weight. Inside, it was a single room furnished like a small dormitory, or perhaps hospital ward. There was a small fireplace at the end, and four beds – raised platforms with pallets on them – plus a couple of stools and a chair. The small windows were shuttered, so it was dim inside, probably all the better for resting.
Kimma found a pillow for Hox and put him on two pallets near a wall. He curled up on his side, and she covered him with a blanket.
Then she invited everyone to have a seat, and took off her muddy, bulky outerwear and hung it on a nail. Underneath she was wearing a simple shirt and pants that showed she had a good figure, not the lumpy thing she showed her clients. She casually picked up the crossbow and put it on the bed next to her, not aimed at anyone this time.
“Okay, now. What are two constables, a giant, a lady (how dare you call her an old lady, Schrog) and a teenager doing here in the swamp?”
Everyone looked at Jorac. “Well, it’s a little expedition I put together on behalf of my bosses. . .” He went on to explain that, as Wizard Constable, he’d been sent to trace where mana was going here in the south part of town. He mentioned the manite test, which was the reason they’d brought wizards along, and summarized what the squad had done on its two expeditions. Veseen and Dorrie hadn’t heard about how Kullo and his gang had been captured, and Schrog hadn’t been told exactly what they were looking for, so they all had questions. The only thing Jorac kept to himself was his allergy to magic; Veseen and Dorrie knew, and he figured the canny Schrog might have guessed it, but he wasn’t going to say anything.
He found himself talking mainly to Kimma. He liked looking at her, and appreciated her little smiles and nods. He liked her attitude too – she obviously had no idea how good looking she was, mainly because she had no one to tell her; in the city she’d have had suitors chasing her every day. Easy, boy, easy. Listen to that Swampside accent, remember where she came from.
“. . . Anyway,” he finished up, “Schrog said he knew someone out here who could maybe guide us. He went ahead to scout a path, and while he was gone, Hox hit that tree branch and the frog jumped on him. Ten or fifteen minutes later, we were at your gate.”
Kimma nodded understanding. After a moment she said, “Wanna try that manite test again now? I’d like to see it.”
“Sure,” Jorac said. “Good idea.” He looked at Veseen as he said, “Dorrie, you ready?”
They both nodded, and Dorrie waved her hands in the now-familiar Exercise Number Three.
Kimma said “Ooooh, pretty!” For some reason that made everyone laugh, and they had to do it a few more times, amid general laughter, to establish a direction. They laid out a piece of string on the floor to mark it, and looked at Kimma expectantly.
“Swamp directions ain’t like city directions,” she said. “You can be fifty paces from someplace, take you an hour to get dere – get there safe at least, down de dry path. But anyways, I think that points over toward the ruins, maybe just off to the side.”
Jorac thought a moment. “When Hox gets better, can you guide us there? We’d be happy to pay you whatever the going rate is for that.”
“Yeah, I can take you there, or anyways Miz Madouve can. Shouldn’t take more’n half a day if we don’t dawdle. Gots me wondering too. We may have to do that test a few more times along the way, though.”
She got up and peeked out the window. “Sun be starting down. You wanna try and carry the giant outta here? Or sleep here? You can stay till he wakes up. I got the blankets, but I’m short on food right now. ‘Less you like frog – gots plenty of jerked frog, saves that for emergencies. Supposed to be getting some good grub carried here, tomorrow or next day. Gots plenty o’ swamp cabbage, a bit of flour, not much else. Could go hunting, maybe, if you’re up to it.”
Dorrie said mildly, “I have a dozen breakfast pies in my pack – eggs, sausage, and cheese.” When they looked at her quizzically, she added, “Jorac asked me to bring some for our breakfast, and I got a few extras, but then everyone else had already eaten this morning, so I just packed them – I figured we’d get hungry later.”
Jorac beamed at her. “Dorrie, I always said you were smart!”
They all agreed they should gratefully accept Kimma’s offer to stay until Hox recovered. Kimma gathered her crossbow and baggy over-clothes and invited Dorrie into her house with her to help cook. They returned with warmed-up breakfast pies and some bowls of vegetables, which smelled quite good – Schrog had told them that swamp cabbage was a delicacy, despite the unattractive name, and had to be eaten fresh. This time Kimma left the crossbow behind. She invited Dorrie to sleep in the house with her, while the men would stay in the shack and keep an eye on Hox.
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.
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