I will not write of the next miserable days. I can never forget all the biting and burrowing pests that stole food and chewed leather. All of us discovered there were four different words for mud, each meaning different things about how thick, wet, and grainy it might be. We made the acquaintance of grass and marsh snakes as well as turtles and frogs, and dined every night on eels and fish. All of the horses, even Drummer and Steady, became good friends as we hauled them out of bogs which were not there the last time Ormer had passed that way. We saw, and let live, a good dozen marsh deer, since no one felt lively enough to skin, dress, and cook one if we brought it down. All of us were caked in mud from top to toe.
Once we came closer to the western side of the marsh, we learned what the map could not tell us, the reason why it would take us a fourth day at least to reach the road. In spreading, the marsh had gone up to the foot of stony cliffs that rose three hundred feet into the air. I wanted to scream, but I did not. How could I, when no one else complained? Pounce did far worse. After an hour’s bumpy ride and a near slide from a reedy island into the water, he had vanished into the Divine Realms with a promise to join us at our destination.
The nights we were out were not wonderful. Finding a dry spot to fit all of us was an interesting chore. Once we were settled, I worked on the journal, bringing it up to date. That at least I managed. Then we would set the watches and bed down, to be up before dawn. We never asked Ormer to take a watch, but he and his dogs were always up several times a night anyway, wandering noiselessly through the water and reeds around our camp. Sometimes, while he was out, the member of our team on watch would hear a large creature splashing off into the distance, a big animal that we had not even known was so close.
Monday night we came to dry ground at the base of the cliffs. It was twilight. Master Farmer and Lady Sabine had lanterns lit to guide our steps. It was the promise of solid land under us that had kept us pressing on so late.
Once we’d set up camp and had supper, Ormer said, “You’re on the good side of it now. An hour’s ride from this place, all dry land, you’ll have your road. I’ve been along here recent, and we’ve had no rain, so you won’t be getting wet. I’d like my pay now, if it’s all the same. Like as not, I’ll be on my way before dawn. I can be home day after tomorrow if the god wills it.” He stroked the lizard, who basked beside the fire.
“Why is it so quick for you?” Master Farmer wanted to know. “Why did you take a longer way with us?”
Ormer smiled. “Because I’m not trailing all manner of horseflesh and packs and armor,” he said. “All I got’s myself, the hounds, and Summerleaf, here.” He tickled the lizard under the chin. “Anyone that’s burdened heavy goes island by island as you did if the bridge isn’t safe.”
Lady Sabine propped her chin on her hand. “And what kind of burdens do those island-by-island travelers carry, Ormer?” she asked gently. “Bad magic? Coin? Weapons? Slaves?”
Ormer shook his head. “Don’t nobody take slaves over the marsh save by the bridge, m’lady.” He’d gotten much more comfortable with Lady Sabine once he’d heard her swear when the horses got stuck. “Too many slaves go and drown themselves, they get the chance. The rest—well, I won’t be talking of you folk to them, and I won’t talk of them to you. In the marshes, ’Tis always better to mind your own nets.”
“What if we must come back over the marsh?” I asked. The others looked at me in horror, and I shrugged. “Just in case it’s needful,” I explained.
Ormer smiled. “When you reach this end of where the bridge used to be, you’ll find a great willow. Camp under it for a night and my cousins will find you. Say you want to visit Summerleaf, and they’ll guide you over.” The lizard flicked its tongue at us, as if it knew Ormer spoke of it.
Tunstall dug the gold noble from his pocket and handed it to our guide. “No doubt we’d have drowned, or mayhap lost much more time if not for you. Our thanks, Ormer,” he said. We all thanked him. If not for Ormer, a great many perils of the marsh might have sent us along to the Peaceful Realms with our work unfinished.