Daian waved her sword from side to side nervously, trying to make out where their assailants had gone, but it was an impossible task; water and mist concealed anything and everything. Jemith was regarding the reed houses, hands on hips, one bare foot tapping the surface of the water and sending out sluggish ripples.
“Hey!” he shouted, and Daian stiffened in terror.
“Are you mad? We don’t know who . . .” she hissed. Jemith made an abrupt, dismissive gesture in her direction. Daian watched him, puzzled, for a moment, then shrugged and sheathed her sword. “I thought I was the crazy one,” she remarked. He favored her with a brief glare and returned to his shouting.
“Hey! There are travelers here in need of shelter! At least lower a rope!”
“Go away!” a muffled voice cried.
Jemith appeared somewhat taken aback; Daian chuckled slightly at his expression. “No! We’re lost and horrible slimy things attacked us! We have no idea where we are and we’re not leaving until you tell us how to get out of this swamp!”
For a long moment, there was silence.
“There is no way out of the swamp!”
“Don’t be absurd!”
“Did you . . .” there was a pause, as though the speaker found the question unbelievable even to ask. “Did you come from Outside?”
“Yes!” A few nervous faces appeared, looking down at them. Jemith scowled ferociously and Daian attempted to make herself presentable. The faces disappeared again.
“They do look like Outsiders,” someone remarked.
“You mean, they don’t look like they come from around here,” another voice corrected. “You’ve never seen an Outsider and neither has anyone else.”
“All right, we’ll . . .we’ll lower a rope, but you have to leave your weapons down there!”
“Absolutely not!” Daian burst out. “They’ll sink!”
“So much the better,” Jemith muttered unhelpfully.
“Oh, just lower the rope already, Blick, all this fuss and confusion is giving me a headache!” another person bellowed from a nearby platform. Still hesitating somewhat, Blick obeyed, and the two travelers climbed laboriously into the house. Their host eyed them nervously; he was a weedy man, small and very thin, with the exceedingly pale complexion of someone who has lived his entire life without ever seeing the sun.
Daian turned the simple act of putting her boots back on into a production, giving her time to survey the reed dwelling. It was shocking in its poverty. The reeds that made up the walls and roof were turning to compost where they stood, patched crudely and inefficiently by twigs, leaves, and draped vines. A few sloppy clay pots spilling trickles of rice and other presumed edibles were clustered under the best part of the roof. That was all. Under the pressure of her scrutiny, them man began to tremble and finally fled, running over a rickety bridge to another nearby structure, mumbling something under his breath.
“Now what?” Jemith asked.
“I don’t know. You got us this far.”
Jemith rose to his feet and followed their supposed host; Daian shrugged and joined him. They stumbled over the bridge into a larger, if no better-maintained, reed house, where a extremely ancient and decrepit woman sat in a mound of blankets. She watched them silently, her swollen, claw-like hands rubbing against each other nervously.
“Sit, why don’t you?” she said, her voice thin and reedy. Daian crossed her legs elegantly and lowered herself to the matted floor. Jemith frowned and sat with an abrupt plop. “So you want to get out of the swamp?”
“Yes,” Jemith said immediately. “We’re only here by accident.”
“Not a happy accident for you, then, I’m afraid. There is no way out of the swamp.”
“Why not?” Daian asked, before Jemith could lose his temper again.
“The witches don’t let anyone leave.”
“Witches?” Jemith asked, shooting a speculative look at Daian, who returned it.
“Yes, witches. They live at the edge of the deep water and they control this place. There is no escape for the likes of us.”
“Keb, maybe . . .” Blick began, and the old woman waved a silencing hand in his direction.
“Husha! No use talking about that now!”
“What does he mean?” Daian asked. The old woman scowled and shifted her weight.
“Supposedly, if you go and speak to the witches at the deep, they’ll administer some sort of test to you. If you pass, they’ll let you leave. But it’s impossible. No one can pass their test.”
“How do you know?”
“No one ever comes back.”
“So who is Keb?”
“Keb’s the last person to go, and a lot of good that did us. Waste of effort, feeding him up. I was sure he’d make it, too.” Daian and Jemith both frowned. “There’s enough work to be done in the morning. You can sleep here.” The old woman hauled herself to her feet and left with surprising speed; Blick returned to his own house almost as quickly.
Daian smiled faintly and lay back against the floor; Jemith picked nervously at a scratch on his hand and continued to stare at his own feet. “Well, now we know what to do,” she offered.
“Witches? With an impossible test? Doesn’t sound very hopeful to me.”
“We don’t know until we look. If they’re witches, we may be able to buy magical supplies from them, and then you can help me. It’s not a disaster.”
“Oh, it’s a disaster.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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