The valley of the vile, poxy, sarden marsh
The sun was not quite up when Master Farmer made us a hot herbal tea that definitely roused us. “It’s wake-up tea,” he said when Tunstall eyed him blurrily. “It’s herbs I’ve gathered from different places. Surely you can taste the ginger and cinnamon.”
“I don’t want anything that might addle me,” Tunstall told him as he slowly drank.
“I wouldn’t dare,” Master Farmer replied. “Cooper would crack my head with her baton. I shudder to think what your lady might do.”
“It’s fine stuff,” I said, drinking all of mine.
“Have a second cup of this, Mattes,” Lady Sabine told him, her voice gravelly. “It’s the smoothest such tea I’ve ever had. Ye gods, I think every mosquito and midge in the swamp found me last night.” She scratched the back of her neck.
Master Farmer looked from her to Tunstall. They were scratching necks, hands, foreheads—every bit of skin left uncovered for the appetites of the local bugs. I shrugged when he glanced at me. Since making friends with Kora, I’d not suffered so much as a fleabite. Her balm’s also been splendid for winter skin. Heavy though it was, I had a jar of it as big as both my fists in one of my packs. Had I not been so tired, I would have remembered to offer some to my companions.
Master Farmer looked sheepish. “I should have thought. I have a little rune. If you don’t mind, I’ll put it on the three of you. It’s good for four months. There isn’t an insect that will bite you while it lasts.”
Master Farmer etched a design on the back of Tunstall’s hand. It sparkled briefly and faded as Master Farmer murmured something to himself. Then he said, “I do sell it, in a few shops that sell creams and scents. I fix it to a honey balm a friend makes, and we give it a wicked price. The wealthy pay, and her children have decent lives.”
He did Lady Sabine’s hand next, then turned to me. I thought about refusing, then scolded myself silently for being a looby. I put my hand out and thanked him in advance. Master Farmer began, then stopped. He raised his eyebrows at me. “It’s very nice, that cream you have on. Clever. Not your magic, though.”
“My friend’s,” I explained.
“Will you introduce us?” he asked. “She’s got a wicked sense of humor tucked in there.”
I nodded, though how he guessed that from a charm in some cream I had no idea. I hoped he didn’t have notions about Kora. I would have to mention casually, somehow, that she was taken.
Once I’d had my tea, I was awake enough to realize I had slept in Master Farmer’s shawl. I shook it out and folded it, then returned it to him. “I’m sorry.”
He put it in one of his saddlebags. “It holds up well,” he said. “It’s gone through worse than sleeping on the ground. Did it keep you warm?”
I nodded. “Thank you for the loan of it.”
“Anytime you want it, ask. I have three packed away.” When I looked at him, he grinned. “I like to be prepared.”
“And I hate fellows like you who are cheerful before dawn,” Lady Sabine grumbled.
We all had two cups each of that excellent tea, then cleaned the camp and resupplied the woodpile. Only when the campsite was as clean as we’d found it did we fit out the packhorses and saddle our mounts. I fed my riding horse an apple from the supply I’d put in my packs, and checked the pommel of his saddle. There was a name etched there. I squinted to see it. This dark brown fellow was called Saucebox.
Remembering his smelly remarks to Pounce last night, I told him, “You’re well named.” The gelding looked back at me and snorted.
“Let’s mount up,” Tunstall called. “It’s going to be a long day.”
Pounce chose to ride seated in front of me, as if he wished to remind Saucebox who was a person and who was a horse. Achoo trailed with the pack animals on my string, whining and halting to look back at the remains of the bridge. Her scent was there. We were riding away from it. She also knew she could not walk across empty air or marsh water.
“You could comfort her, Master Pounce,” Lady Sabine said as she dropped back to ride beside me. “We cannot explain things to her, but you can.”
I have explained to her, Pounce replied. Otherwise you might have been forced to bind her feet and tie her to a horse. She is a simple creature, my lady. She only understands so much.
I sympathized with Achoo. It bit to ride away from the enemy’s trail. I did not look forward to going around this entire marsh, either. These villagers must have a ferry, I reasoned. They wouldn’t put up with dependence upon a bridge seven miles away.
Yet I remembered other marsh dwellers I have met since pairing up with Achoo. They tend to keep to themselves, marsh people, distrusting anyone who doesn’t share their lives between land and water. They like to live well away from the world, and they like to keep their secrets. The ones I had known were not very helpful at all.
Our road turned and twisted along the edge of the marsh. We found other small bridges over streams that cut the road on their way to the shadowed masses of green and open water on our right. Unseen birds were beginning to sing as the sky grew pale. As the sunrise lit the eastern mountains, we halted on one of the longer bridges to stare out over a broad expanse of water, edged all around by islands of reeds. A heron, blue and immense, took flight, trailing his heavy legs. He startled several egrets, who flapped into the air in his wake. I held my breath at a sight so beautiful. The rest of the water, the part they had not disturbed, was as smooth as glass.
Tunstall clucked to his horse and rode off the bridge. The rest of us followed, still in silence. Pounce sat up—he’d been sleeping curled between my legs—and looked out over the water.
You should have seen this three thousand years ago, he said. The others looked at us as he stretched against the edge of the saddle. This place was not quiet or beautiful. The Searflame dragon family came here to their final battle with the Ianto clan. They belonged to the immortal race called the Ysandir. The Ianto were smiths—makers of fearful weapons. Dragons and Ysandir, they cut deep trenches in this land and tore huge boulders from it to throw at one another. The trenches later filled with water from underground springs. It’s called War Gorge Marsh, and the humans don’t even remember why it has that name.
“You tell it as if you were there, hestaka,” Tunstall said.
I was, Pounce replied. They wrecked so much of this country that the Great Gods came to put a stop to it. I kept the Goddess company. The Ysandir would not listen. Their offensiveness began the war with the Great Gods that ended in their defeat. It was the first time that humans fought on behalf of the Great Gods.
“I’ve read about the Ysandir,” Master Farmer said. “Nothing good, but I’ve read about them.” He yawned.
Pounce leaped to the ground. They had good music. I do miss that. He trotted off into the reeds.
We rode on quietly. The others talked from time to time. I drifted to the rear and took out my journal. I had to grab every chance that came to me to write in it, or despite the memory exercises I’d learned in training, I would start to forget small details. Even using my own code of symbols I had barely covered the events of the 12th when I heard a rough cove’s voice say, “And who might you folk be?”
I hurried to jam my writing gear and my journal into their waterproofed case, taking a glance to see what was up. We had reached the center of the fields around the village the map had promised. A cove with a fishing pole and basket blocked our path forward, as if he alone could stop us. Beyond him I saw lamps burning through open windows. I could smell baking bread and frying bacon. My belly growled.
“You can see our uniforms, Master Fisherman,” Tunstall replied. “We are a commission of the Provost’s Guard, under orders from the Lord Provost himself. We need to speak with your headman immediately, and we need a messenger to go to Arenaver.”
“Do you just?” replied the fisherman. “Well, you may talk to the keeper of our public house, for all the good it will do you. The Sign of the Trout.” Without even a word of farewell, the rude mumper walked on past us, past me, without looking up.
“A friend of my mother’s once told me that a mage who gets in a rut ceases to learn,” Lady Sabine told him as we rode on to the village. “Look at the favor we are doing for you.”
“I have been looking at it,” Master Farmer said. “The writing of that favor begins to look forged to me.”
“You’re being a baby,” Tunstall told him. “There are plenty of mages in the City of the Gods who would be happy for a bit of adventure right now.”
We passed through the last fields and found that our road was the village’s main street. People had gathered there, mots, coves, and little ones, to stare at us. Seemingly strangers were not common. Tunstall spotted the Sign of the Trout and drew up there. It had rails for horses, an interesting touch for a place that doubtless saw very few riders. We hitched our mounts to them. Pounce and Achoo stayed with the horses. The rest of us walked inside the public house.
I had time to see the place was being cleaned by a mot and a gixie before Tunstall ordered, “Cooper, take the door.”
He wasn’t comfortable here, either. I drew my baton and turned my back on the room, standing in the open doorway. Anyone who chose to join the conversation from outside would need to come at me, and I would warn the others. I held my baton two-handed, at hip level, and pretended to ignore all the village folk who stared at me. Achoo came to stand at my side. She could tell things were tense, the local people suspicious of us.
“We need to speak with someone of authority,” I heard Tunstall say. “We were told to ask here.”
I heard the crackle of parchment. “I am Senior Corporal Matthias Tunstall of the Provost’s Guard. Here is my pass from the Deputy Provost of this district. My companions and I are on a Hunt,” Tunstall explained. “First of all, the bridge across the marsh seven miles back has been destroyed.”
“We know,” I heard the younger mot say.
“Cork it!” the headwoman snapped. “Go on, Guardsman.”
Tunstall ignored the headwoman, who did not use his rank. “Have you a ferry? We must get across the marsh as soon as possible.”
There was a long silence behind me, so odd it made the skin between my shoulders prickle. Finally the mot said, “Ferries in the marsh? Are you crackbrained, man? There’s no waterpath wide enough nor straight enough for a boat that might fit even half of you folk and your livestock.”
I glanced back. Lady Sabine had drawn herself up at the insult to Drummer and Steady, but the headwoman wasn’t even looking at her.
I looked outside at the gathering villagers as the headwoman went on speaking. “We get about the marsh here as our fathers and mothers did, and their fathers and mothers before them, Master Senior Corporal. They had no bridge to keep their feet dry.”
“That one only brings us trouble—it’s not close enough to bring us good,” a cove said. His voice came from inside. I did not dare turn in case those in front of me tried to attack, but I twitched. Where had this fellow come from? He said, “It’s too far for decent folk to walk. Trouble hereabouts comes on horseback. The bridge be gone, you say?”
“Burned down to the stone piers,” Tunstall replied. He didn’t sound at all worried. Of course, one time I’d thought him dead asleep before his fist lashed out and broke a Rat’s jaw. With Tunstall it’s sometimes hard to tell.
“Then how do you cross the marsh?” That cheerful, casual voice was Master Farmer’s.
“Shank’s mare,” the cove said. “And you’ll need a guide. As you take the north road, seek the last cot on the left, with a shrine to Merscart of the Green on the north side. Ormer will take you on from there.”
I heard the shift of clothing. “How do we know this Ormer is trustworthy?” Lady Sabine asked.
“He’ll be with you, won’t he?” the headwoman demanded, her voice sharp. “He’ll be stranded with you if it comes to that. He’s odd, but he’ll guide you well.”
“There’s another task we’ll require of one of your people,” Tunstall said. “I need a courier to take a letter to the Deputy Provost right away. The matter’s urgent. Whoever you choose must stop for nothing and no one on the road.”
“So I’m to take two of our folk,” the headwoman began, plainly furious by now.
“Three,” the older cove said, interrupting her. “I’m going with whoever takes that ride. Look at them, Beldeal. Dogs on a Hunt, with a noble riding along? They’re trouble, and the trouble might spread.”
Tunstall said naught to that. The enemy had no reason to send killers along the way behind us, or even to think to send killers after us, now that they’d destroyed the bridge. They’d have plenty of time to ride off with the prince by the time we got back to the road called the Rivers Road on my map.
In my mind I saw the drowned oarsmen and their officers, their own ships holding them prisoner as they sank. Where most folk shrank from killing more than necessary, these bloody-handed scuts slaughtered ten as easily as one.
Beldeal snapped, “You lot best pay them—both of them!—well, to make up for them losing the day’s work. And a fee for three horses lost for the time—”
I heard the jingle of coins tossed on wood. When she spoke, Lady Sabine did so in a most elegant drawl. Lady Teodorie spoke in such a way. Hearing it in a voice I loved made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
“What we will pay for, woman, is four good breakfasts for my human companions and me, with rubdowns and food for our mounts, and food and water for the cat and the hound who travel with us.” The folk in front of me, who could hear that refined voice, were leaving. For people who lived out in marshland, they seemed to know very well what nobles sounded like. A couple of them, younger even than my brothers, stayed and bowed, pointing to the horses. I nodded to them, and they led our mounts and packhorses around the side of the public house.
“Your riders will be paid by the Deputy Provost,” I heard Tunstall say. “On delivery of my letter, with the seal intact. Be assured, they’ll be fairly rewarded. I’ll want them to go as soon as I write the letter.”
“Leave it to me,” the deep-voiced cove said. “I might slow us down, big as I am, but all will be done as you need it done.”
“We’d prefer you got there alive over getting there a couple of hours earlier,” Tunstall replied. “Cooper, stand down,” he called.
I holstered my baton and went back into the room. Tunstall had taken his writing things from his pack and was working on his report. Master Farmer was talking to a young, plump maidservant, who he soon had in giggles. My lady had left the room. Since I could hear Beldeal’s voice shouting for someone to chop and someone else to bring a ham, I knew breakfast was not coming right away. I found my own table, brought out my journal, and wrote more on our journey so far.
I looked up when my lady returned—she had gotten one of the maids to bring water to a room so she could wash a bit—and when Tunstall gave his letter to a youth of 15 or so and a big man who had the deep voice I’d heard. I went back to work on my journal, having no wish to listen to their orders. The youth looked strong for his age, all rawhide muscle, and the older cove had the air and very short haircut of a former soldier. They would do well if they had decent horses. So would the other messenger they chose. One of them at least would surely reach Arenaver.
I put my work away when Beldeal came in with a loaded tray and joined the others at a large table. For a while all was silent as we ate. Beldeal had sent the two younger mots out of the room once we were served, doubtless not wanting any danger from us to light on them, but she had stayed. The more food that went into our mouths, the more relaxed she got. Seemingly she took pride in her cookery, and the men and Lady Sabine in particular made it plain that they liked it. I ate enough, but I was more worried about Achoo. She paced, huffing like, looking out the open door as if the bridge might turn up out there, with her scent on it. Finally I took my plate and sat on the floor, then called her to me, wheedling her to take bites of my food. Once she tasted the egg pie with herbs, I didn’t have to coax her anymore.
“You treat that creature like she’s a human. Wasting good coin to feed people food to an animal!” Beldeal said.
I’d heard it before. No matter how many times it happens, I always feel ashamed that folk would think I waste money of any kind. I shifted around so Master Farmer was between me and Beldeal’s sharp brown eyes.
“Achoo is a scent hound,” Master Farmer said innocently. “She has more rank in the Provost’s Guard than I do.”
Seemingly Beldeal was one of those mots who had a very narrow view of what was and wasn’t right in the world. “An ordinary cur is of more value than a man?”
I started to bristle when she called Achoo an ordinary cur. Lady Sabine, who’d been seated on one side of me, reached down to rest a hand on my shoulder. I tried to relax. I would not disgrace myself before the lady if I could help it.
Beldeal, like most folk who think theirs is the only way of looking at things, was still gifting us with her opinion. “We have hunting hounds, but they’re nothing special. We can always train another. You dry worlders are a strange lot.”
“Dry worlders?” Tunstall asked.
“You’re going to find out,” Beldeal said. “There’s only one way to reach the eastern end of what the likes of you call the Rivers Road. You’ll be taking the ways through the marsh. Merscart of the Green grants us solid pieces of land out there, but sometimes he takes a few of them back. He’s not inclined to tell us which, or when.”
“Is there a better way around the south end of the marsh?” Lady Sabine asked.
Beldeal cackled. “Oh, no, my lady. There Merscart has married two goddesses, them of the Halseander and the Banas. All three twine together where they meet in water and green.”
Once we’d packed up and were riding south on our way out of the village, Master Farmer remarked, “She’s a splendid cook, but what a disagreeable female!”
Tunstall chuckled. “Pray you never meet my mother, then, if you think Beldeal is no rose. My mother is armed.”
“Perhaps we’ll just fight over you, then, in a civilized manner,” Lady Sabine remarked. “No awkward questions about who sits where at the wedding, should one ever come. Just clean and simple swordswomanship.”
“That would terrify me, a battle as a wedding,” Master Farmer said. He looked back at me. “Wouldn’t it terrify you, Cooper?”
I stared out at the marsh, ignoring him. I was starting to get a very bad feeling, based in part on the fact that I could not see the trees or hills that marked the far side. I was certain Tunstall and the lady at least had made note of it, too, but were far wiser than me and chose not to worry about it yet. After all, there was naught we could do. Without a ferry at the road, this was the only way to pass. I hope Tunstall’s report to the Deputy Provost urged her to start rebuilding the old bridge.
We did not have to ride much further before we found an open-fronted shrine roofed and floored in fresh marsh grasses. Birds and creatures fled it as we approached. Lady Sabine dismounted, letting Drummer’s reins trail, and approached the shrine, her hands held prayer-fashion before her.
The three of us still a-horse looked at the simple cot set back against the woods between the village and the shrine. Chickens pecked in the dirt before the house while a goat kept the grass nipped near to the roots at one side. On the other side, far from the tethered goat’s attentions, was a small vegetable garden.
As the most junior Dog, I have always had the job of knocking on the door. I slid down from Saucebox’s saddle and walked up the beaten earth path. I was about to knock when two four-footed dogs, golden brown with white ruffs and pointed muzzles, raced around the goat’s side of the house without a sound, galloping straight at me. I got my baton out, then kept my hands out and away from my sides. I looked down at the newcomers’ feet, not into their eyes. If I met their eyes they would think I was challenging and attack.
Achoo raced toward us even as the strange hounds neared me. “Achoo, no!” I cried. There are some Common words my Achoo will obey when I say them sharp enough. She halted, her fur sticking up, her throat rumbling in a growl. “Tinggal,” I ordered Achoo. “They think we’re trespassing.”
I heard the ring of steel being drawn. A glance told me my lady advanced from the shrine, her sword in hand. Tunstall had dismounted and his baton was out. I put up an open hand for them as a signal to halt, wishing they obeyed the same commands that Achoo did. I wanted to know where these hounds’ master was.
“I don’t like Dogs callin’ on me, nor do I care for swords in the fist,” a man called from the shadows under the trees. “Tell the mage I’ll put an arrow through any of yez gullet if he twitches.”
“I’m not deaf,” Master Farmer complained from his horse’s back. The dark blue sparkling fire around his hands faded, but I was beginning to think that meant naught about Master Farmer’s readiness to work. “Do you treat everyone who comes to knock on your door this way?”
“On’y Dogs,” called the unseen cove. “What do you want?”
“We need to cross the marsh,” Tunstall shouted. “Beldeal at the inn sent us to you.”
For far too long, we awaited a reply in silence. Then a tall, skinny young cove walked out of the woods. He was well tanned, with black hair and black eyes. Nature had given him short shrift on his chin, but I doubted the local mots noticed when they saw the muscles in his chest and arms. He wore no shirt, only a pair of breeches and rough old boots. I wondered if he had something for the bugs. They did not bite, but as the air warmed, they made a nuisance of themselves around my eyes and ears.
He carried a longbow and quiver. The bow was unstrung now.
“Call off your hounds,” Tunstall said. “It’s no way to start a talk of business.”
“Is it business you’re after?” Ormer wanted to know. “Most ways outsiders in uniforms and armor come here to order us about. It’s not business we’re offered. It’s slavery.”
“We’ll pay you for your labors,” Tunstall replied stiffly. “At the orders of the Lord Provost, Gershom of Haryse.”
Ormer snorted. “A few pence for four days of my life? Be sure I’ll make an offering for your lord to my lord, Merscart of the Green.”
“Four days?” asked my lady, considerably startled.
“My life. Two days of your’n, if we don’t bog down,” Ormer replied.
Lady Sabine shook her head. “Do we look like coneys to you? Cooper’s map says the distance around this end of the marsh is forty miles back to the Rivers Road. It’s a map by the Crown’s own cartographers, and by their measure we should be at our destination by nightfall if we don’t linger here.”
Ormer’s full mouth twitched. He didn’t move as a large green lizard raced up his leg and chest, though I’d wager its claws were sharp. When the creature was braced on his shoulder, glaring at us with black bead eyes, Ormer said, “A Crown what’s-it, you say. Mapmaking cove, he is? And he walked the ground himself in his pretty court slippers?”
“When was it done?” Ormer asked, seemingly interested and concerned, now. “We’ve had that much flooding these last three year. If your map be old, mayhap it’s missing as much as thirty square mile of marsh, give or take.”
“There’s no shorter way to get back to the Rivers Road?” Tunstall asked. “Beldeal said the south end of the marsh is worse.”
Ormer nodded. “We could manage it,” he said, giving the lizard a pat and the dogs a nod. “But horses can’t go that way, nor mules nor ponies. These last fifty year, folk take the bridge.”
“What did you do before the bridge?” asked Lady Sabine.
Ormer looked at her. “We kept ourselves to ourselves.”
“My lady,” Tunstall said to correct him. “She is Lady Sabine of Macayhill.”
Ormer leaned to the side without a lizard and spat. “We’re not much for graces here in Marsh Hollow, Your Ladyship.”
Tunstall looked at all of us. He stopped at me. “There’s no other way?”
I crossed my arms. “Achoo was still on the scent when we got to the bridge. We won’t know if they went somewhere else till she smells the other side of it.”
Tunstall inspected Lady Sabine and Master Farmer once more. It was my lady who shrugged and said, “At least we need not worry about insect bites?”
“There’s plenty else to bite asides midges, mosquitoes, and the like, Your Ladyship,” Ormer said. “Don’t expect bows and curtsies from the bears and mountain lions. I’ll be paid if I’m to lose four days or—” He went silent when Tunstall held up a gold noble. It had to be more coin than Ormer had seen in all his days, mayhap more gold than all Marsh Hollow had seen.
“You’ll have it at our destination,” Tunstall said. “Not before. And if you think to lead us into a bog and rob us …” He pointed to Master Farmer, who gave Ormer that exceedingly silly grin of his. Solemnly Tunstall explained, “That is a mage.”
Ormer pointed to his bright green friend. “This is a marsh lizard. They grow up to six feet long. They’re common, and they swim.” He whistled to the pair of hounds, who finally moved away from me. “I’ll pack up.”