The Seventh Execution—Chapter Three: The Fettered Freed
The Seventh Executionby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter Three: The Fettered FreedThe moon was a yellow bruise in the sky as I hurried through the streets of Edme. Sweat poured off me as if I raced through a furnace. I ran without seeing, navigating the streets by long practice. I felt I had left part of myself back at home, as if I had lost a limb. ... I stopped, panting, when the cobbled road spilled into a flagstone-plated quadrangle. Prickly weeds, trampled flat by the mobs that congregated...
The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter Three: The Fettered Freed
The moon was a yellow bruise in the sky as I hurried through the streets of Edme. Sweat poured off me as if I raced through a furnace. I ran without seeing, navigating the streets by long practice. I felt I had left part of myself back at home, as if I had lost a limb.
I stopped, panting, when the cobbled road spilled into a flagstone-plated quadrangle. Prickly weeds, trampled flat by the mobs that congregated there, sprouted from cracks in the stones. The gray walls of Torvin Academy bounded the opposite size of the plaza. A few lights burned in upper windows, but the plaza was full of moonshadows.
Razor Jenni stood in the center of the quadrangle, atop a wooden platform braced with heavy timbers. I shuddered when I saw the final blade, her thirsty edge held aloft atop a scaffold. A set of stocks at the base of the scaffold snapped around the prisoner's neck. A groove cut through the yoke allowed Razor Jenni's blade to slip through and take the prisoner's head with her.
I spied movement at the base of the platform. Bradach stood concealed in the shadow of the scaffold. When he saw me, he took a step forward and beckoned. I scanned the quadrangle a final time to ensure no one watched, then hurried to meet him.
“It's good to see you,” Bradach said. He wore a heavy, dark cloak and stood with his hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the chill. “Did you succeed?”
“I spoke to my... I spoke to Mirford.”
Bradach looked alarmed. “You told him our plan?”
“No.” I shook my head. “I asked about the executions. I wanted to prove to you that the guilty, the traitors, are the ones who are executed.”
Bradach sighed and crouched to face me. “And what did you find?”
When you are a halfling, you get used to living in a world unsized for you. Yet it always seemed to me that I was the proper height, and everything else overlarge and exaggerated. In that moment, though, I felt small. “He implied that the evidence used—” My voice broke. I cleared my throat. “The evidence might not be as ironclad as I would prefer.”
“It's hard to admit that the things we fought for weren't worth our dedication,” Bradach said. “It's taken me a long time to reach the place I am now, and I took many wrong turns along the way. But what we do here can make up for many sins of the past. You see that, don't you?”
“Then do you have the medallion? Hand it to me and we can set about freeing these poor souls.” He stretched a hand out.
I have said before that halflings must remain alert to survive. We have learned to carefully read the humans who run the cities in which we live, attuning ourselves to their whims and desires to remain useful, and thus safe. Bradach's words sounded well enough, but the way he thrust his hand toward me was a shade too quick, too eager. It unnerved me for reasons I couldn't articulate.
“Tell me more,” I said. “What led you to undertake such a selfless mission?”
“We are exposed here. I'd be happy to answer your questions afterward, but we can't delay. You did get the medallion, didn't you?”
“Even the most desperate looter would hardly stride up to the doors of Torvin Academy. We have a few minutes.” I met Bradach's gaze. “I spent most of my life allowing myself to work for a man whose intentions were not wholly admirable. Forgive me if I make more certain this time. What spurred you on your mission?”
He looked away as if weighing my question. When he spoke, his voice was low and sad. “Someone I care about is trapped in there. Do you need to know more than that?”
But I had seen a flash of annoyance in his eyes before he looked away. My sense of unease deepened.
“How did she come to this?”
He gave me a lopsided smile. “It is that obvious that she's a woman? We worked together in Mivon. She hated injustice as much as I did, and we undertook several missions together. Six months ago she traveled to Edme in an attempt to free a prisoner awaiting the blade. She failed, and was executed herself.”
"Razor Jenni claims both heads and souls."
It was a good story. Yet if Bradach had known what function I truly performed for Mirford, he would have used a different cover. My life revolved around executions, and I knew well enough that there was only one woman to die in Razor Jenni's arms in the last few months. I took a step back, anger replacing the nausea in my gut.
“You had nothing to do with her,” I said, harshly, foolishly.
Bradach straightened. “I choose to keep my motivations private. I may be guilty of misleading you in that sense, but I wanted to make sure you understood how important this is. It's all that matters. Now we can argue about this all night or you can tell me whether you got the medallion.”
I took another step back. “I couldn't get the opportunity. You'll have to give me more time.”
We stared at each other. Branach looked me over from tip to toe, tapping his chin. After a long silence, he spoke.
“I think you're lying.”
“That makes two of us.”
He gave me an ugly smile. “Then I won't waste any more words. Give me the medallion or I'll take it off your corpse.”
He reached for me and I stumbled back, flailing my arm to keep him off. My little knife leaped into my hand.
“Get away from me!”
He put a finger to his lips as he advanced. “Voice down, slip. Do you want to bring the whole city down on us?”
My heart thudded. The fiery anger inside me turned in an instant to icy rage.
“Chelaxian!” I dropped my voice to a shaking whisper. “I've sent more than one of your kind to their deaths.”
“And now you'll help one of my kind release those souls.” He darted forward and grabbed for me again. I ducked under his arm and skipped out of his reach. “They'll be invaluable in my rituals. Perhaps I'll even find a use for your corpse.”
I darted to the left. Bradach rushed forward and caught hold of my wrist. A soundless explosion of cold shot up my arm and numbed me all the way to my shoulder. I bit my tongue to keep from crying out. I flailed, kicking and scratching, and threw myself back. Bradach lost his grip. I tucked into a roll as I fell. My numbed arm threw me off. The roll broke apart and I sprawled on my stomach.
For an instant I felt a terrible weakness grip my limbs, but I shook off the lassitude and scrambled to my feet. I kept as quiet as I could. If I cried out, someone was bound to hear. The guards at the Academy would simply arrest us both, and I had just stolen from my master. Looters would cut us down.
Bradach loomed over me. My knife lay on the ground to my right. I dropped to my knees when Bradach swung at me. His arms whooshed overhead. I snatched up the knife and stabbed him in the thigh.
Bradach stumbled back with a muffled cry. His heavy cloak blunted some of the impact, but the edge of my knife came away wet with blood.
I leaped to my feet again as Bradach took another run at me. He had his own knife out now. I dove forward and to one side of him. His knife scored my back as I rolled past. The cut stung, but not badly. I kicked up to my feet a dozen paces past him.
“I get worse than that chopping carrots.”
He threw his knife at my head. I ducked down and raised my hands for cover. Too late I realized that Bradach's throw was careless, meant only to distract me. I tried to back up but he had already charged. As I scrambled back, Bradach caught me in the chest with a sharp kick.
I flew back and slammed into the cobblestones. Bradach twisted his hands together. Blue light built between them.
I had hoped our forced silence might keep him from casting, but no words accompanied his intricate gestures. Light shot from his hands and streamed toward me like ethereal arrows. I rolled away. The missiles followed my movements. I bit my fist to keep from screaming as the bolts slammed into my side.
My body shrieked with pain, but my heart bled with regret. To conspire with a Chelaxian, even unwittingly—I could think of no greater ignominy. I had paid for my betrayal, and paid dearly.
Bradach twisted his hands together again. I bounced to my feet and sprinted for cover. I whipped around the edge of Razor Jenni's platform and crouched behind one of the timbers. I heard Bradach's quiet curse.
I panted, trying to regain my breath. I blinked in surprise to see I still held my knife. Instinct must have kept it in my hand. I could hear Bradach circle around Razor Jenni's frame. I waited until he had almost rounded to my side, then ran the other way.
Bradach reversed direction. I'd expected that. I raced up the stairs onto the execution platform and cut across it. Bradach heard me coming and tried to back away. I threw myself off the platform and crashed into him, burying my knife in his shoulder.
His howl of pain eased the ache in my heart. We fell together. I tried to pull the blade free but Bradach rolled to the side and threw me off. I had always supposed wizards to be weak and frail, but Bradach was no pale scholar. His strength and size far outstripped mine.
My knife stayed buried in Bradach's shoulder. I scrabbled for a weapon but came up with nothing but a chunk of broken flagstone. Bradach rose to his feet, panting. I clutched the flagstone to my chest and crawled under Razor Jenni's platform.
She was a presence, that blade. I could feel her weight above me, pressing down, waiting hungrily for her next victim. I shuddered and forced myself to remain in the shadows, half-hidden behind a timber pile.
“Come out of there you rotten little slip,” Bradach whispered. I could hear the faint rasp of his boots as he circled the platform, trying to spot me. “Or throw me the medallion and I'll let you go.”
Halflings survive by reading human intentions. I knew Bradach was lying.
Bradach finally got on his hands and knees to peer under the platform. I summoned all my strength and flung the flagstone chunk. The rock struck Bradach above his eyes. He whimpered and collapsed.
I waited for a minute to catch my breath. My heart beat crazily and would not calm down. I crawled out from under the platform and rolled the wizard over. He was unconscious, but still lived. I went through his clothes and removed a case of scrolls and a pouch half-filled with gold and silver coins.
Then I dragged Bradach up the stairs to the platform. My side ached. Blood dripped from the cut on my back, but not much. I used all my strength to pull the wizard's warm, heavy body along. My sense that Razor Jenni was alive—was watching me—grew stronger as I dragged Bradach across the platform and onto the chopping block.
Six traitors I had sent to their final rest. Six that I was certain of.
That night I made it seven.
Her or me, I'd said. I had saved myself by condemning her. In truth, though, I had condemned both of us. When she made the march to Razor Jenni, I'd walked beside her, though I hadn't known it then. A part of my soul stays trapped in that blade, too. I believe it always will.
Galt is no longer home to me. I am armed, though, and I have money in my purse and new courage in my heart. I'm told the River Kingdoms hold freedom for all, even servants. The road there is a dangerous one, but halflings have learned to survive. I travel when the roads are empty and sleep in ditches when I can. My sleep is untroubled. The nightmares have gone.
Coming Next Week: Varisian scoundrels in the streets of Magnimar in Bill Ward's "The Box."
The Seventh Execution—Chapter Two: The Faithful False
The Seventh Executionby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter Two: The Faithful FalseWe retreated into a network of side streets where we could escape if necessary and where we'd easily hear anyone approaching. The night was cool enough to frost our breath. The smell of refuse lingered beneath the familiar city smells of dirt, sweat, horse dung, and boiled potatoes. ... When I thought us safe, I turned and held up a hand. “Speak quickly.” ... “First let's make certain I have the right person. You are...
The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter Two: The Faithful False
We retreated into a network of side streets where we could escape if necessary and where we'd easily hear anyone approaching. The night was cool enough to frost our breath. The smell of refuse lingered beneath the familiar city smells of dirt, sweat, horse dung, and boiled potatoes.
When I thought us safe, I turned and held up a hand. “Speak quickly.”
“First let's make certain I have the right person. You are Tibeth, servant at Mirford Manor?”
I nodded, never taking my eyes from the man's face. A muscle in my calf twitched, as if reminding me that flight was still an option.
“My name is Bradach,” he said. “I have traveled many miles and followed convoluted divinations to find Mirford Manor, and you.” He lowered his voice further. “I am on a mission, a dangerous one, involving the house at which you work. I had hoped—”
I held up my hand again. “Before you speak further, you should know that whatever this mission is and however far you've come, you have the wrong person if you think I would do anything to betray my master. He is a good and patriotic man. I would sooner go straight to him with all you've said and risk punishment than be involved in a plot against him.”
Bradach raised an eyebrow. “Your devotion is admirable, and unexpected. Are you not a slave?”
My shoulders lifted and brow furrowed as I took a deep breath. “Servant, if you please. My family has willingly served the Mirford family for three generations. My master appreciates the qualities we bring to his household. In my youth, I was educated and trained in many skills beyond a simple kitchen slave's abilities. So you see, I have no wish to betray the man who has been so kind to me.”
“I do see.” Bradach rubbed his chin. “Yet I must ask, do you know what role your master serves in the city?”
“He is a member of the Revolutionary Council,” I said. “Everyone knows as much. He assists the city in protecting itself and works to uncover those who would harm us.”
“Those who would harm you.” There was no question or malice in Bradach's voice, but I took offense nonetheless.
“Traitors. Sympathizers. Rats that gnaw at the foundation of Galt. My master finds them and has them executed.”
“And every executed person is guilty?”
“Y-yes. Of course, yes.”
"Bradach would undermine the very heart of the Revolution."
“Not a convincing reply.” Bradach's voice was smooth and even, almost gentle. “You're certain only the guilty lie with Razor Jenni?”
“What do you want with me?” I spoke too loudly and cupped my hand over my mouth, hushing myself.
Bradach glanced over his shoulder to ensure we were still alone. “I come from the River Kingdoms. I had expected to find a slave, ill-treated, who would sympathize with my cause. My case may now be harder to make.”
“What,” I repeated, “do you want with me?”
“The River Kingdoms are free, and I wish to spread their message across the land.” Bradach spoke as if he hadn't heard me. “I have my own reasons for wanting to start here. I have researched a spell—it's untested, but I believe it will help release many innocent souls.”
“What is this spell?”
“If you're not willing to help, I'm not sure I should tell you.”
“If you won't tell me, I don't know if I'm willing to help.”
Bradach studied me. I flushed. My quick retort had shown my hand. I was entertaining the idea of helping him, or at least not hindering him. If only he hadn't asked are you certain...
It was her or me!
“The spell,” he finally said, “should release the spirits trapped in Razor Jenni. Though those executed will remain dead, their souls will be freed to travel on to whatever reward or punishment they merit.”
I drew in a sharp breath. The great terror of a final blade is not that it is an instrument of death. As the condemned marches up the wooden steps to where the weighty frame holds its razor edge aloft, his fear comes from the knowledge that there is nothing for him after death. His soul will remain trapped in that bloody blade. It is this fear, my master says, that deters so many from considering or attempting treason.
Then why do so many die? I wanted to ask. If it deters them, then why do so many die? But I dared not ask. Those who ask make that grim march themselves.
“Free their souls...” I whispered.
“Yes.” Bradach's voice grew eager, almost desperate. “To remain trapped forever in that horrible device—I cannot even find words to describe it. Some of those spirits may be guilty, yes, but they were people, people with families, friends... lovers...” He struggled to maintain his composure. “I am here to test the spell. If it works, I will use it to free all such imprisoned. Will you help?”
“What do you need me to do?” I asked.
∗ ∗ ∗
He needed me to betray my master.
Chores always filled my days, and I worked as hard as I could to distract myself from Bradach's proposal. That afternoon I stood in the manor's kitchen, trying to find comfort in the crackling fire. I had not committed myself to Bradach's mission yet, but had asked for time to think about it. Now I wished I had given him either a firm yes or no; the internal debate that kept surfacing in my mind wore me out more quickly than washing windows.
It seemed simple to say no, easy to say no, right to say no. The moment I fixed it in my mind that I would say no, though, Bradach's question resurfaced: Are you certain they were all guilty?
Then I would think of her, and my thoughts would fly apart again.
More than two seasons had passed with no arrests or investigations led by my master. Panic had grown within me. “Those without use to the nation are the first fingered as traitors,” my father always said, and my master had many enemies.
She had arrived in the city the previous week, a human woman traveling alone. I found no relatives of hers in Edme. I followed her. She visited unsavory elements in town, asking questions about noble families executed during the start of the Revolution. One night I observed her prowling around the ruins of an old manor house. She uncovered a book, one of the family ledgers in which the nobles recorded births, weddings, and deaths.
Eager to present my master with someone, I turned her in without further investigation. She was obviously looking for a tie to her family, seeking to prove her noble lineage. The decadent nobility had condemned Galt to years of oppression under imperial rule. To willingly seek out a connection to them was indefensible.
She tried to defend herself. She claimed to be the child not of the noble family, but of the servants who had worked in the manor and had helped overthrow their masters. Her parents, she claimed, were commoners lost in the Revolution, and she was searching for relatives who might have survived. Others had tried such stories before, but she spoke so clearly, so simply, that I believed her.
Or did I? I gasped as I sliced the kitchen knife slid off the carrots and over my finger. Blood pooled on the chopping block. I had no proof of her innocence, but her calmness and certainty in the face of her accusers had caught in my memory.
When she mounted the steps for her final meeting with Razor Jenni, I told myself it was her or me.
“Are you all right?”
I squeaked and spun around. The master stood there, looking at me with concern. He had changed out of his work clothes and into a simple navy robe and slippers. A wooden medallion displaying the flag of Galt hung from his neck. Though I remained young even after my many years of service, he showed signs of age. His face displayed new lines every year, and gray streaked his hair.
“It's nothing, sir,” I said. I wrapped my finger in a handkerchief. “A bit of carelessness on my part.”
“Be careful with yourself. I can't afford to lose my best servant.” He smiled down on me and I nodded. “I'll be leaving in the morning for Isarn. Can you have my things packed and brought down before I retire?”
“Yes, sir.” I swallowed. “That's earlier than usual. Is anything wrong?”
He raised an eyebrow. “A simple schedule accommodation. Should I be concerned about something?”
My mouth was dry. I had to swallow again. “The execution last month... I hope my evidence was sound enough. Those who seek your position might try to discredit you by casting doubt on my findings.”
We had never talked so openly about my work before. Always I reported my investigations to him, clearly and concisely, but said nothing about my motivations, or his. The master crouched down and put a hand on my shoulder. It covered my arm halfway to my elbow.
“Tibeth, there is nothing for you to worry about. Your findings were sound, and had they not been, I would have found ways to compensate.” He squeezed my shoulder lightly. “You continue to find suitable targets and I will ensure there's suitable evidence. I rely on you, you know. You keep both my position and Galt safe.”
My head spun. I thought for a moment I might faint. I forced myself to relax and smoothed the expression from my face. “Yes, sir. I understand.”
He left me standing next to the bloody carrots. I slumped against the counter until the dizziness passed.
For his spell, Bradach needed a bit of heartwood from the tree that died to make Razor Jenni's frame. My master wore a bit of that wood around his neck. I never saw him without it.
I went upstairs to my attic room and laid a handkerchief over the sill as if to dry it, a sign Bradach and I had arranged last night. The wizard would see it and know to meet me in the university quadrangle at midnight. There I would give him the medallion and help set the souls in Razor Jenni free.
∗ ∗ ∗
I stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to my master's room, summoning the courage to take the first step.
In my service to my master, and to Galt, I had followed traitors and seditionists through dark and abandoned streets. I had unlocked windows and searched people's houses for evidence. Once, I had even been forced to fight for my life when I encountered a looter in the building I'd come to search. Still, I had never felt the nervous dread I felt now as I looked up that shadowed staircase.
When I could bear the tension no longer I took the first tentative step. It was easy to make my way silently up the stairs; I knew the creaky boards by heart.
I reached my master's door and stopped. My pulse thrummed in my ears. The door latch stood at shoulder height to me, and I could peer easily through the keyhole. I saw only darkness and heard the even breaths of my master as he slept. When I lifted my hands to the lock, the muscles in my fingers twitched as if rebelling against the act.
I knew of a trap on the door, a simple spring-loaded needle coated in a toxic substance. My master left the trap unset during the day, when I might need to enter his room, and set it every night before sleep. I lit a candle and worked carefully by its meager light. I had seen traps like this before and cautiously traced my way down to the triggering wire. I snipped the wire in half with a tiny blade. I carried the rest of my tools as well as a small dagger, though I could never attack my master. The tumblers in the lock gave me more trouble than the trap did, and it was several minutes before I finally turned the last one over. I blew out the candle and eased the door open.
The familiar objects of the room seemed sinister in the moonlight. The bed, with my master slumbering quietly beneath the quilts, sat in one corner of the room. Four wooden posts, each one twice as tall as I, held up the bedframe. I saw the medallion hanging from its leather strap on the post flush in the corner.
I padded to the side of the bed. My master did not stir. Chill sweat covered my body and made me shiver. I rested my hands on the quilt and, with precise movements, pressed down until I had the leverage to pull myself onto the bed.
My weight was so little that I barely made a dent in the mattress. Still, I waited until I was certain that my master slept soundly before I rose. My shoeless feet found it easy to keep purchase on the lumpy surface. I took slow and shallow breaths between each step, straining to hear any whisper or rustle to signal my master's wakening. I stopped next to the pillows. My master's head rested inches away. He lay on his back, looking untroubled in sleep. Guilt stabbed through me.
Before I could change my mind, I placed one hand on the wall to steady myself and reached with the other. I stretched to my limit until I could grab the medallion with one swift clutch.
It seemed as though a thousand bees stung my palm at once. I howled and fell backward onto the bed. The amulet flew from my grasp. My master woke instantly, bellowing and thrashing in the bedclothes. I rolled off the bed and hit the floor with a gasp, the wind knocked out of me.
I felt a peculiar pang of betrayal. My master had not told me he kept his medallion warded.
A foot crashed down next to my head. I rolled away, sucking in breath as my lungs began to work again. I scrabbled madly on the floor for the medallion. There wasn't much light but I remembered the sound of the medallion landing and followed my instincts.
“Tibeth!” my master shouted. “Tibeth!” It wasn't until afterward that I realized he was probably shouting for me to come, not yet recognizing the thief on the ground before him. I heard him draw a blade from a scabbard. My hand closed over the smooth wood of the medallion.
There was no shock this time. I scrambled to my feet. A sword blade came slicing down. I threw myself to the side. The sword bit into the wooden floor and spat splinters at me. I spun around, disoriented, trying to find the door.
My master raised the sword again and paused, holding the blade aloft. “Tibeth?”
I ran out the door and down the stairs, into the night, holding the medallion before me like a shield.
Coming Next Week: Final blades and first steps in the final chapter of "The Seventh Execution."
The Seventh Execution—Chapter One: The Watcher Watched
The Seventh Executionby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter One: The Watcher WatchedHer or me. It was her or me. ... After the execution, after too many sleepless nights, afraid to face the waiting nightmares, I had to put the matter behind me. ... It was her or me, I declared, then made myself believe it. If I stopped, though, if I ceased whispering my mantra under my breath when I was alone, if I left off repeating it in my mind until I nodded off at night, the horror of the day returned. It seeped...
The Seventh Execution
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter One: The Watcher Watched
Her or me. It was her or me.
After the execution, after too many sleepless nights, afraid to face the waiting nightmares, I had to put the matter behind me.
"It was her or me," I declared, then made myself believe it. If I stopped, though, if I ceased whispering my mantra under my breath when I was alone, if I left off repeating it in my mind until I nodded off at night, the horror of the day returned. It seeped into my thoughts in sudden and startling ways. Firelight glinting on a kitchen knife recalled Razor Jenni's blade. Wagon wheels rumbling on the cobblestone street brought back the murmuring crowd. Raw meat on the cutting block, waiting for dinner—
Her or me.
I had worked hard all day. Now that night had come I found that sleep would not visit. I lay motionless on my cot, eyes fixed on the ceiling, listening to the house settle around me. This used to be my favorite time of day, when I could rest my body and free my mind, letting my fancies take me to lands free from toil and fear. Now my fancies took me to very different places. I distracted myself by running through the list of chores for the next day: stop the wood-cart when it came around and purchase two bundles on account, put a roast in at noon so that it would be ready for dinner, take the curtains down in the library and wash and press them, clean the windows while the curtains hung on the line. I hated windows more than any other chore. While a stepstool and creative leveraging allowed me to do human-sized tasks in every other area of the master's house, windows required a ladder and endless climbing up and down.
I'd lifted a pot full of soup earlier that day and aggravated an old strain in my back. My head pounded like the drums before an execution. I sat up. The moonlight coming through the gabled window illuminated the old boxes and trunks piled in the room. Most halfling servants have to be content with half-rooms under stairs, attached sheds half the height of the rest of the house, or even cupboards. To sleep in an attic, even one with a close and slanted ceiling and mice that ran over me in the middle of the night, was luxury.
I rose from my cot and stretched, trying to ease my aches. The floorboards felt cool under the curls of hair covering my feet. I padded to the window and leaned on the sill.
The quiet streets of Edme stretched away, disappearing into a maze of stone walls and peaked roofs. I often stood here, looking for furtive movements or cloaked figures, any signs that Cheliax worked to invade our free nation with their bound devils and sorcery. My father had served my master's father and remembered the start of the Red Revolution and the oppression that came before it. When others were in earshot, he would tell me stories of Chelish dominance and the nobles' excesses, a time when halflings were downtrodden "slips" and not respected servants. When we were alone, he cautioned me that those without use to the nation were the first fingered as traitors.
"As long as you keep finding spies and turncoats for the master, you'll never find yourself in Razor Jenni's arms."
"In Galt, it's best to never be noticed at all. Fortunately, halflings are good at that."
There are always traitors in Galt. I had become an expert at spotting them by the darkness in their eyes and the rhythm of their gait. My master traveled to Isarn once a month to serve on the Revolutionary Council, and he used my eyes to improve his standing there. Together we had sent six traitors and Chelish sympathizers to their final rest. Six that I am certain were guilty.
And one that I am not.
My mind threatened to sprint down those familiar paths once more. I focused instead on the dark street below, watching for unusual activity. The moon was out, just past half full and waxing. My eyes quickly adjusted to the little light. Edme's resources grew leaner with each passing season, and more than one citizen crept out at night to rifle through abandoned houses. My perch allowed me to watch for such activity, and my experience helped me separate desperate looters from dedicated traitors.
I stayed at the window until I started shivering. I stretched, and was ready to return to my cot when movement in the street below caught my eye.
I stopped in mid-stretch, holding myself still. A human figure crouched in the alley across the street, wrapped in a dark cloak and hood. I couldn't see the figure's face, but his height and manner of dress suggested it was a man. I watched, waiting to see what business the fellow had so late. He pressed against the wall of the alley, motionless save for small movements of his head as he surveyed the street. The man's focus was not on the street itself, but only the building opposite him. The building in whose attic I stood, watching him in return.
He was spying on my master's house.
He must have seen me, I thought, before recalling how difficult it is to see inside an upper-story window from the ground, especially when the person at the window stands only head and shoulders above the sill.
The watcher looked up just as I stepped back. I hesitated, wondering whether he had seen me after all, fighting the temptation to step forward again and make sure I had gone unnoticed. No, no time for that. I grabbed my cloak from its peg near the door and hurried down the stairs.
My sleeping clothes are almost identical to my working ones: a thin shirt and brown linen trousers. My cloak, though, is dark blue-gray, purposefully dyed to help me blend into the night. I threw the cloak over my shoulders and pulled it tight in front. I don't wear shoes. I let myself out the back door not more than two minutes after I had first spotted the watcher.
Halfling senses are sharper than human ones. We can't see any better in the dark, but we're attuned to details. Especially here in Galt, where we live so close to death, halflings must remain alert.
I crept along the side of the manor until the mouth of the alley opposite me came into view. It stood empty. I could hear footsteps, though, muffled and growing fainter. I dashed across the street, my feet almost noiseless against the cobblestones.
I had to work to catch up. Even at top speed I moved slower than humans did. My biggest advantage was that the watcher didn't seem to know the city well, while I could navigate the streets with my eyes closed. The moon vanished behind clouds twice, and the tall buildings around me cut off much of the light. Several times I had to slow down lest I trip in the dark or splash through a puddle. My heart beat a little faster every time I had to slow. The watcher's footsteps grew fainter. If I didn't make up the distance quickly, I was going to lose him.
The watcher's footsteps doubled back. The remains of an old lecture hall loomed before me. It had burned down at the start of the revolution. Sooty timbers leaned drunkenly toward each other. Puddles of rainwater glimmered between piles of broken glass and charred rubble. I held my breath and listened. The scent of old fire stung my nose. The watcher was south of me, circling around the building. I tucked the hem of my cloak into my waistband and climbed into the ruins.
I scrambled up one of the leaning timbers. The wood, soaked with countless rains, was rotten and soft as a carpet. The timber collided with one of its fellows at a crazy angle. I leaped from one to the other. My feet slid on the sodden wood, and I windmilled my arms to keep balance. When I'd righted myself I paused, listening. The watcher was still moving.
The timber shifted a little as I ran down its length. A mess of fallen boards crossed the center of the room. I clung to the timber and slid over the edge. Carefully I dropped down onto the boards. Mud and broken glass lay thick around them. I hastened across, my breathing coming quick and ragged as I picked each careful step.
One of the boards slid out from under me. I hopped to another, hoping it would hold. The planks clattered. I froze and listened.
The watcher stopped. I bent my knees and huddled as close as I could to the ground, envisioning the fastest way out of the building and back home.
Then the watcher started up again. I gave him as much lead as I dared before continuing across the ruin. I reached the other side just as he approached. I breathed a little more easily. Now I could keep up with him for certain. I concealed myself behind a pile of rubbish and waited for him to pass.
At the same time, I heard more footsteps from the other end of the street. Quiet boots, low voices, a sharp laugh. Looters. Most criminals in Edme were driven by desperation, but lately more sordid individuals had come to the city. They were violent men who followed rumors of abandoned treasure-vaults. I hesitated in the shadows. Before I could decide what to do next, the watcher darted straight for my hiding place.
As I had guessed, he was a human man. The moonlight robbed his form of color, but it seemed his skin was a light brown shade similar to my own, and his hair and eyes were both dark. He pressed against the wall and slid down to conceal himself behind the refuse pile I was using. I held my breath and, for a wild moment, thought he might not notice me.
Then the watcher looked down and saw me crouched next to him. His eyes widened.
The sounds of the looters grew louder. I put my finger to my lips and shook my head.
The watcher nodded and kept silent. The looters came abreast of us, three of them dressed in dark clothes with weapons held openly in hand. They carried empty packs strapped to their backs, waiting no doubt to be filled with artifacts of pre-Revolution Galt. The watcher held still next to me, so tense I could almost hear his muscles hum. After a dreadful minute, the looters passed by into the darkness.
The watcher let out his breath in a sigh and straightened. He was short for a human, less than twice my height. "I appreciate your silence," he whispered.
"I've no wish to run afoul of that type," I replied. "You take a risk being out so late."
"As do you." He looked me over. "You've been following me, haven't you?"
I clenched my hands. The man had good ears to have heard me, and I had lost any element of surprise. I readied myself to run, but risked a direct question first. "You were watching the Mirford estate. I want to know why."
The watcher smiled. He crouched down to put himself at eye level with me.
"I was looking for you."
Coming Next Week: Moral quandaries and dark magic in Chapter Two of "The Seventh Execution."
The Swamp Warden—Chapter Two: Fear the Scaled Ones
The Swamp Wardenby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter Two: Fear the Scaled OnesThe oar cut into the water and pulled back, leaving swirling eddies of silt in its wake. Rhyn rowed with purpose, sliding the skiff around the boles of giant trees lifting out of the muck. The insects were no worse and no better. Frogs sang creaky songs in the darkness. ... Within an hour he'd reached the site of the strange fetish. It still hung, awkward and grim, from the tree branch. Rhyn tied the skiff to a stump and...
The Swamp Warden
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter Two: Fear the Scaled Ones
The oar cut into the water and pulled back, leaving swirling eddies of silt in its wake. Rhyn rowed with purpose, sliding the skiff around the boles of giant trees lifting out of the muck. The insects were no worse and no better. Frogs sang creaky songs in the darkness.
Within an hour he'd reached the site of the strange fetish. It still hung, awkward and grim, from the tree branch. Rhyn tied the skiff to a stump and tried to climb to reach the thing. The slick trunk coated with moss and slime afforded no purchase to the hard soles of his boots. He pulled them off and tried again, barefoot, toes slipping through the sludge to catch on the rough bark. His outstretched fingers brushed against the fetish. He grabbed and tore it down.
A convulsive shiver seized him, and he almost lost his grip on the tree. The lattice of twigs felt wet and clammy in his hand, like the acid-softened fingerbones of the hands in the gator's stomach. A cold lump formed in his throat and a sudden rush of blood laughed in his ears. Rhyn shrugged off the creeps and slid back down the tree.
Once back in the boat he examined the fetish more closely. The twigs were only twigs. The bundles of herbs were made of milkweed and lobelia.
The eggs were alligator eggs.
Rhyn knew by the texture and the size. The eggs were empty, blown clean, and the runes on the sides were daubed in blood. He turned each egg carefully, examining the runes. Overall they made no sense, but the occasional rune reminded him strongly of the marks swamp-dwellers used to blaze trails and communicate danger or good fishing spots. These ones looked like marks of haven: a safe, protected area.
Rhyn dumped the fetish in the bottom of the skiff and rowed on.
He covered a widening path as he headed deeper into the swamp, into territory unused by the Crossfen fishermen and largely unexplored. Another fetish hung high in the branches and Rhyn felt a surge of adrenaline at the progress. He nosed the skiff in the new direction and picked up speed.
Two more fetishes marked his way. An hour passed and the trees grew so thick and the water so shallow that he had to abandon the skiff. He left it tied to a tree and progressed on foot. The knife hung from his belt, at the ready. In one hand he carried his sword, in the other, the half-shuttered lantern.
Fog rose from the knee-deep water as Rhyn sloshed ahead, his boots sinking into soft muck. The water was chill against his skin and the air colder still. He noticed a smell, rank and putrid, something beyond the natural stink of the swamp. Rhyn slowed, listening. All he heard was his own breathing and an overwhelming drone of bugs. The frogs had stopped singing.
A breeze rose up, rippling the water and blowing the fog aside. Rhyn let out an involuntary cry.
Wooden poles fanned in a half-circle from the base of a tree, fencing in a portion of swamp like a cove. Decayed bodies lay within, bulging with gas, flesh sloughing off to form a vomitous soup. Insects hung in a visible cloud over the morass. Beneath them, a creature feasted on the dead, stripping away handfuls of skin and sticky fat and cramming them into its mouth.
Rhyn had an impression of slick skin, long arms, and yellow eyes before the thing launched itself at him. He lifted his sword reflexively and crouched back, twisting as the creature leaped past him. It landed with a growl in the water and wrenched itself around. A thick tail lashed the muck and it came at Rhyn with black-clawed hands.
"There are men, and there are the lizards—and then there’s this thing."
Rhyn's conscious mind was still in shock over the horrific scene and the unknown monstrosity, but years of battles with swamp creatures had gifted him with instinctive defenses. He snapped his arm out in a series of quick slashes as he retreated. The creature lunged again and caught itself on the blade. Rhyn took a step back, absorbing the impact of the blow, and then pressed forward with a downward stroke.
The creature lunged just as Rhyn did and they came together with a sick crash. Claws scrabbled against his chest, digging in past the leather breastplate he wore and tearing into skin. Rhyn's blade chopped down through the thing's shoulder and well into its torso. It let out a hoarse growl. The acrid stink from its flesh surrounded them, making Rhyn's eyes water. He smashed the lantern against the creature's face and kicked it in the gut.
It staggered back and fell into the swamp with a splash. Rhyn stood, staring wide-eyed. His breath came painfully. The creature's body floated for a minute and then began to sink. Quickly, Rhyn stepped forward and hauled the carcass onto a hassock.
The lantern's shutters were dented, but it still shone. In the pale light, Rhyn examined the monster. It was thinner and smaller than it had seemed during the battle. Its bones were brittle; Rhyn had broken its cheekbone with the lantern and his sword had carved right through its clavicle. Pale, slimy skin like a frog's belly covered its body. A curving tail, muscled and rigid like an alligator's, hung from its spine. Its hairless head was misshapen, its oval mouth full of curved teeth. This was no lizard. Rhyn had never seen anything like it.
Two of its claws had broken off in the fight. Rhyn looked down and saw one still embedded in his chest. He pulled it free with an oath and flung it into the swamp.
After a moment to prepare himself, Rhyn moved to the fence of stakes. He used his sword's tip to poke into the disgusting mass within, just long enough to confirm what he'd suspected.
None of the corpses in the soup had hands.
∗ ∗ ∗
Now the runes appeared carved into tree trunks, daubed with white clay that reflected the battered lantern's glow. Rhyn followed their trail for an interminable time, breathing hard. His chest ached where the monster had clawed him. The wounds were cold, as if rimed with ice. The splash of water against the mud sounded like hissing laughter, and Rhyn had to fight every instinct to whirl around and challenge the darkness.
His boots were stiff and wet, caked with mud. Lantern light shuddered over the path as he forged onward.
The water grew more shallow. It lapped around his calves and then his ankles. Rhyn pushed through the deepening thicket, out of the water now, onto a mossy hillock. The trees thinned enough for pale moonlight to reflect on the fog and lighten the area. A narrow path trailed up the hill. Human hands lined the edge of the path, five in all, skeletal left hands reaching from the ground like obscene flowers.
Rhyn knelt by the hands. Shreds of muscle and skin, dried and withered, still clung to the bones. These had been stripped, he saw, and knife marks in the bone showed precision and ritual. He stood again and took a better grip on the hilt of his sword. Slowly, carefully, Rhyn followed the path around a copse of thin young trees.
A small hut squatted atop the hillock, draped with vines and caked with white clay. Standing before the hut, waiting for him, was a woman.
Her skirts hung heavy with streaks of mud and moss, dragging on the marshy ground. Over her shoulders she wore a short cape covered with the feathers of a dozen swamp birds, all gray and dreary. She held a staff in one hand. A curtain of knotted hair covered her face.
Rhyn stopped and angled his sword defensively across his body.
"So you're the one. Setting your pet on innocent travelers? Stealing their hands? I suppose you summoned that creature in the fen. What for?"
The witch lifted a hand and pushed her hair back from her face. Rhyn did not move, did not speak. The lantern light, the insect hum, the whisper of wind on the waters behind him—all dimmed, leaving him momentarily in a world of black.
Then his voice returned, hoarse and small, enough to gasp, "Cara?"
"It's good to see you again." Her voice was just as he remembered, low and soft with a hint of the northern drawl common in Nirmathas. "I've been dreaming of you."
"How did you survive?" His voice came out strained, aghast. "After the storm let up we took boats out. We searched for hours. Two more trees came down on us. I kept going back." His throat closed up and he had to force the words out. "I went back every day."
"The swamp witch saved me," Cara said. "She brought the storm and then plucked me out of the water. She was very old, and it took most of her strength to conjure a storm so large." She let one eyelid droop, a grotesque wink on her drawn, mud-streaked face. "She used the rest of it training me. Now I live here, carrying on her work."
"Why didn't you come back?" The claw marks in his chest pulsed with pain.
"My mistress taught me that the swamp is our true home. Others, like you—" She waved a hand and took a step forward, and Rhyn shrank back. "—you preach the Green Faith, but you don't understand the swamp. Life stirs in the dark and you hide from it and shine lights from your windows." Cara lowered her hand. Her face shone with a fevered sweat. "This is the true faith. Reverence for the life born from these waters. It is our duty to embrace it and protect it."
"What did she do to you?" he whispered.
Cara's eyes narrowed. "I sent the alligator out to fetch you. You who have styled yourself protector of the town, that interloper in the wild. The swamp cannot be tamed. It cannot be civilized. Abandon it. My mistress spent her life researching a way to bring a true guardian forth, a new type of creature born of the swamp and dedicated to preserving it."
"I saw it. I killed it."
"What you killed was a failure. It was weak and small compared to the potential of a true guardian. But now—now I know where I went wrong. I can summon it anew, properly."
"You need more hands for that, I guess. That's what they were for, right? This ritual?"
"In a way. They served as a foundation, a base of power from which to conduct my trials. Now the ritual is much simpler. If you helped me..." She gazed into his eyes. "You could join me. Drive the others off. Let the swamp claim their buildings. Live in harmony with all that exists here in the dark."
"If you knew me at all, you'd know better than to ask me that."
She shrugged, a slight motion, but one filled with danger as she lifted her staff just off the ground. "Then you may assist me in death."
Rhyn only got a step forward before the ground erupted with writhing tentacles of vine. They lashed around his calves, almost toppling him. He grunted a curse and tried to wrench his feet free. Cara laughed and chanted strange, sibilant words as Rhyn hacked at the vines with his blade, stumbling sideways as they loosened.
Cara's chant reached a fever pitch. The ground shuddered and then erupted beneath Rhyn in a torrent of crawling insects. They scrambled and undulated as they clawed up his boots. Rhyn gave a repulsed cry and lurched forward, shaking his legs in an effort to dislodge the swarm. As he moved he hurled the lantern, half by instinct, toward Cara. He heard the shutters rattle and Cara cried out, her chant stuttering into silence.
He raced to close the distance between them, sweeping his sword down. The mud streaked on Cara's skin and clothes hardened into bark, and Rhyn's blade sliced down through wood, not flesh. He flinched from the shower of splinters.
The swarm of insects followed, and Cara scrambled back from them. Rhyn tackled her and they slammed into the mud together. He scraped painfully over a root as he slid forward. Cara scrambled for purchase in the mud, trying to rise, and Rhyn grabbed at her ankle as the insects flowed over them. She fell, kicking, and caught him in the jaw with one foot. They rolled apart, crushing bugs into the muck. Their tiny bodies sank back into the ground as the swarm dissipated.
Rhyn slid his hands through the muck, looking for his sword. Nothing but silky mud met his desperate grasp. Cara snatched up her staff and slammed it into Rhyn's side with a triumphant yell. He rolled with the blow and abandoned the hunt for the sword, hauling himself up to his feet instead.
A cold wind rushed across the hillock, bending the trees and whipping Cara's hair against her face. She raised her hands above her head, her fingertips glowing a sickly yellow. Her words were garbled, a shriek of some sibilant language and snatches of prayers to her twisted faith, reverence of scales and swamps and darkness. Rhyn charged, slick fingers finding the hilt of the fillet knife in his belt. Cara brought her hands down on Rhyn's shoulders just as he drove his blade into her gut.
They stood locked together for an instant. The yellow light sank into Rhyn's skin and nausea rolled through him. He broke out in a cold sweat, and that roaring laughter echoed once more in his ears. Then he steadied himself and shook off his fear, though he still felt weak and sickened. Cara hung on his knife like a fish on a hook. She had cupped his chin in her hands, and her sharp nails had torn the skin so that his blood dripped down her fingers.
He let her slide to the ground. She gasped and curled her hands convulsively over her chest.
"I'm sorry I stepped on your feet," he said.
"It's alright." Her eyes closed. "Leave me in the swamp."
Then she died. Rhyn knelt by her body for several minutes, dizzy, shattered. He stood and wiped clumsily at his face.
He kicked down the hut and tossed his lantern atop it. It took time to catch fire and burned slowly, with a green flame from the wet wood and vines. He sheathed his sword and knife and picked up Cara's body.
A few steps past the shore he paused, knee-high in the swamp. His dim reflection twisted in the ripples, shadowed by the distant fire behind him and the moon above. Cara's hair trailed in the water. He bent his knees and eased her into the murk.
A few drops of blood fell from the scratches on his face, mixing with Cara's as her body sank. The wounds in his chest flared with sharp pain. Rhyn doubled over. His gut churned, and the terrible weakness swept through him once more. He tried to stand but his knees gave out, plunging him into the water.
He flailed his arms, struggling to find something solid with which to pull himself up. The pain in his chest spread to his limbs, suffusing his body with unbearable pain. He screamed and choked as swamp water washed into his mouth. His fingers grasped something—Cara's hair. The tangled strands bobbed and twisted away from him as he floundered.
All vision fled. In the blackness of his mind he saw an image, a snake splitting into three parts with a man's head atop each branch. Cara's voice whispered in his ear.
Now—now I know where I went wrong. I can summon it anew, properly. Now the ritual is much simpler.
More water flooded his mouth and he inhaled, sputtering, but did not choke. The water flowed into his lungs like air. The swamp around him was brightening, coming into focus, as if lit from within. He lifted a hand to his face and saw pale, frog-belly skin and long black claws.
When he tried to scream again, all that emerged was a rasping growl, like the roar of an alligator.
∗ ∗ ∗
"I saw it!" A child ran up the pier, stumbling over his own feet in his haste. "It's out there again! I saw it!"
Mart hustled over, one hand on the knife at his belt. He put his other hand on the child's shoulder. "You sure?"
"Sure!" The child pointed into the darkness. "Out there!"
Mart stared for a time, but it was hard to see beyond the lantern-light. The ripples could be a skulking beast—or a leaping frog. The glow of yellow could be a baleful eye or an errant firefly, the hiss a sound of hunger from a gator-toothed maw or the movement of wind through branches.
"What is it?" the child whispered. "What does it want?"
Mart shook his head. "No way to know," he said. "The things out there—they're not like us." He turned them back toward the warm light and safety of town. "Fear the scaled ones."
Coming Next Week: Kevin Andrew Murphy offers some alchemical insight in the nation of Galt in the first chapter of "The Secret of the Rose and Glove."
Amber Scott is the author of several chapters in the Pathfinder's Journal, as well as numerous Paizo RPG products, including recent releases such as Heart of the Jungle and Halflings of Golarion. She writes from her home in Canada, where she lives with her husband, Jason, and her two cats, Dabu and ZugZug.
Welcome to the Swamp Wednesday, September 15, 2010It's that time again! Now that Liane Merciel has wrapped up her superb Worldwound adventure, Certainty, it's time to pull up our stakes and move somewhere else with the free Wednesday web fiction. In this case, that's down south to the forests of Nirmathas—or, more accurately, the dark waters of a nondescript little fen, where something strange has been stirring. ... This week's offering is different in another way as well. For this...
Welcome to the Swamp
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
It's that time again! Now that Liane Merciel has wrapped up her superb Worldwound adventure, "Certainty," it's time to pull up our stakes and move somewhere else with the free Wednesday web fiction. In this case, that's down south to the forests of Nirmathas—or, more accurately, the dark waters of a nondescript little fen, where something strange has been stirring.
This week's offering is different in another way as well. For this story, long-time Paizo author Amber Scott has brought us a tale that is—if not exactly sweet—significantly shorter than previous entries, broken over two weeks rather than four, the better to keep the action moving and the lineup shifting. If you have an opinion about the change of pace, mixing shorter stories with longer ones, let us know in the comments section below!
In "The Swamp Warden," Amber brings us the story of Rhyn, an experienced swamper with a troubled past, liked well enough by the little town of fishermen and marsh-folk that he's chosen to defend, but never quite a part of things. He's good at his job, and if that isn't quite enough to erase the memory of his lost love, it's at least something. But when a new threat starts hunting the tree-shrouded waters of the fen, it's up to Rhyn to row out to meet it. And what he finds there may change him—and the swamp—forever...
The Swamp Wardenby Amber E. Scott ... Chapter One: Ripples in the FenFear the scaled ones. Rhyn had heard the expression from his parents and the other elders in the village his whole life, and they had heard the expression from their parents, and back farther than anyone could remember. No one knew who had first coined the phrase, but Rhyn knew whoever did had lived in a swamp, this one or another, for he had learned the lesson that the villagers of Crossfen now taught their youth. ... Fear...
The Swamp Warden
by Amber E. Scott
Chapter One: Ripples in the Fen
Fear the scaled ones. Rhyn had heard the expression from his parents and the other elders in the village his whole life, and they had heard the expression from their parents, and back farther than anyone could remember. No one knew who had first coined the phrase, but Rhyn knew whoever did had lived in a swamp, this one or another, for he had learned the lesson that the villagers of Crossfen now taught their youth.
Fear the scaled ones.
An alligator had attacked two fishermen, out in the swamp on the sodden edge of the river that flowed toward Lake Encarthan. Crossfen children gathered on the pier to watch Rhyn prepare for the hunt. He coiled fishing line, checked that the fillet knife in its leather sheath was sharp, set a heavy club and a fishing pole in the skiff, and filled a bucket with fathead minnows. They quivered, too weak and thickly packed to flop, their flesh the dull silver of a tarnished fishhook in the lantern light.
"Scaled ones aren't like us," Rhyn said. "I don't mean lizards, the ones that walk on two legs and hunt with spears. They're more like you and me. I'm talking about animals—gators, eels, fish. They live in the muck, breathing in silty water. They're always cold, right down to their skinny bones. Their eyes are always open, always watching. We can never understand them, and that's what makes them dangerous."
"Eels don't have scales," one boy said. He had a sullen mouth, and bits of dried porridge clung to his face. "And they aren't dangerous anyway."
Rhyn stared until the boy shuffled one foot behind the other and looked down. "Some eels don't have scales, that's true. But don't ever think something in the water isn't dangerous." He put down the lantern and rolled up one sleeve. A puckered, hairless divot in his flesh caught the light. "Capsized once and an eel bit me there while I was in the water. All the filth and rotten fish bits in its teeth set the wound festering. Had to cut a chunk out lest I lose my arm."
"How did you capsize?"
Rhyn cursed silently. "It was a storm. I know, we don't get storms here. But it happened. Two years ago, out there." He gestured to the blackness. "Brought a rotten tree down on my skiff and capsized us. I was lucky to live through it."
The children maintained a solemn silence. Rhyn finished loading the skiff and stepped lightly aboard. He settled into place and untied the line. As he pushed off, he looked up at the children. "Fear the scaled ones. They're not like us."
"Fear the scaled ones," the children chorused. Rhyn floated away from the pier and into the swamp, until the lights of Crossfen hovered like fireflies in the distance.
∗ ∗ ∗
The skiff slipped in near-silence through the murky waters. The lantern hung from a pole curving off the bow, its light catching on the ripples that spread out from the boat.
Rhyn shuttered the lantern, leaving only cracks of light spilling out from the metal plates. He fixed a minnow to the line and trailed it behind the skiff as he drifted, quiet and dark.
Sheets of yellow-green scum broke apart as the skiff sliced through them and bobbed away in wrinkled patches. Long loops of vine brushed Rhyn's shoulders. A hum of insects hovered around the skiff. Gnats landed on his face and hands, tried in vain to puncture the tough skin there, and flew on. The throaty cry of a whippoorwill drifted through the trees.
An hour passed, then two. Rhyn shifted position to keep his legs from growing numb. He reeled in the line and replaced the minnow with a fresh one. His thoughts drifted back to the children on the pier, watching him, growing smaller as he slid into the dark.
He thought of Cara.
His mind wandered that well-worn trail, favorite moments from childhood, secrets whispered in the dark, fishing together on the pier. He remembered them dancing in the Bent Reed while Mart played the fiddle. Rhyn had stepped on Cara's feet one too many times, and she'd laughingly refused to dance with him anymore. "Not until you apologize," she'd said. He'd grinned and refused and tried to catch her in a dance the rest of the night, but she always spun away.
That had been a week before the last trip into the swamp. Rhyn stopped the memories there. Better to focus on the here and now.
He stretched and looked up, into the tangle of tree branches thick with moss that hid the sky and cast the swamp into perpetual gloomy darkness. Something hung from a branch, a lattice of twigs strung with eggshells and bundles of herbs. Paint daubed on the shells traced runes that Rhyn couldn't interpret. He frowned at the fetish and thought briefly of bringing it down for a better look.
Then the line bobbed sharply. Rhyn wrapped both hands around the fishing pole but didn't start fighting right away. He fed some line first and let it draw into the water for moment after moment before setting his legs under the bench and hauling on the pole.
A spray of water exploded twenty feet away. Strips of jagged light from the shuttered lamp slashed across the gator's belly as it thrashed in the water. Sweat poured from Rhyn's body and gnats descended on his hands and neck in a rush. The skiff rocked, but Rhyn held his spot, keeping his weight in the center of the bench. Bit by bit he took the line in, bringing the gator and skiff closer together by inches.
"Don't break," he muttered. The line was spider-silk thread from the giant spiders in the Fangwood, spun with catgut and double-waxed for strength. But this gator was big.
The muscles in Rhyn's arms stung. A yellow eye glared briefly from the churning water and disappeared under the surface again. The rigid green-black hide, rough as cordwood, surged toward the skiff. The gator's tail lashed the water, drenching Rhyn in a spray of stinking murk. All at once he let go of the fishing pole and snatched up the club.
"Aye, there are creatures in the swamp that will hunt a man. And the best protection is to hunt them first."
The club was slick with swamp water and Rhyn clenched both fists around it. The gator rammed into the skiff and Rhyn almost slid off the bench as it rocked. The lantern bobbed wildly. A wave of water rolled back as the gator opened its mouth and readied to take a bite out of the side of the skiff. Rhyn brought the club down on the gator's head, two-handed, with all his strength.
The beast stilled momentarily, its great mouth open, rows of yellow teeth curving over the gunwale of the boat. Rhyn swung again, slamming the gator's skull with brutal force. Its eyes went dim and flat.
While the gator was stunned, Rhyn snatched up the fillet knife and drove it deep into those yellow eyes, first one and then the other.
∗ ∗ ∗
He sat quietly in the boat for a spell after he killed the gator, breathing deeply and absently swatting at insects. When his heart was back to its proper rhythm, he tied the gator up and let it drag behind the skiff.
The energy of the battle still hummed around him like an insect cloud. He felt recharged, purposeful, invincible. This was why he'd chosen to stay in Crossfen even after Cara had died. Why he'd taken on the mantle of protector though none of the townsfolk had asked him directly. Because he could, and because they needed him, and because it felt right. He imagined this was what it was like to be the Forest Marshal, a leader and protector.
When Rhyn pulled the skiff up to the pier, the children were still hanging about. They ran off the minute they saw him, and by the time he'd tied off the boat, climbed out, and dragged the gator's body onto the boards, a group of townsfolk had clustered. They murmured with fear and admiration as he rolled the gator on its side.
"Not too big," Mart said.
"Not too big," Rhyn agreed. He fished his knife out from the skiff. "What do you think, seven feet, nose to tip? Still bigger than most."
"Usually five to six is what I see," one of the fishermen said. He scratched his ear. "That looks like the fella that hit us last week. Don't get 'em this far up, and so big either."
"And they don't attack men," said Mart. "Strange all around."
"What's this?" Rhyn fingered an old scar on the gator's cream-colored underside. "Almost a pattern." The scar reminded him of the runes on the fetish hanging from the tree, and the skin on his back crinkled in gooseflesh.
"No idea," Mart said.
Rhyn lined the knife up on the gator's belly. Gators could and would eat just about anything, and it was always worth checking their stomachs. The gator's fleshy belly was thick, but not tough like the rest of its hide. The gathered women shooed the children off and headed back to their homes. The fishermen who remained gathered close around to watch. Rhyn slid the knife in and worked it back toward the tail, letting the oily blood drip down through the boards of the pier.
It was the work of a few minutes to find the stomach and slice it open. Rhyn reached in cautiously with gloved hand. He wrinkled his nose at the acrid stench of bile and groped through the mush of the gator's insides.
Almost instantly he felt it: a tangle of firm but yielding objects, like a mass of twigs. He grabbed one and pulled. With a wet squish, he withdrew his arm and displayed a human hand, flesh dripping off the bones, green with slime and severed at the wrist.
The fishermen recoiled with a collective groan. Rhyn dropped the hand and it splatted on the pier. "Guess he had himself a meal not long ago," Mart said.
"Guess so." Rhyn gingerly slid his hand back into the stomach, breathing shallowly through his mouth. The stink of rotting flesh, heavy and thick as marsh gas, hovered around him. He grabbed at the tangle again and pulled.
A second hand slopped onto the boards to lay beside the first. The fishermen muttered and shook their heads. Rhyn stared at the hands, brow furrowed. Soft bones, half-eaten by the gator's stomach juices, shone wetly through the strips of flesh. Mart came to squat next to him.
"Poor soul," he muttered. "Strange how they look almost cut, isn't it? Suppose there's more of him in there?"
"Don't know," Rhyn said. He took one of the severed hands between thumb and finger and flipped it over. "They do look cut. Mart, tell me something."
"These both look like right hands to you?"
Everyone stared at the hands for a good long minute.
"Fear the scaled ones," Rhyn whispered.
∗ ∗ ∗
He pulled five right hands from the gator's stomach and nothing else. Within an hour he had cleaned and sharpened his knife and restocked the skiff. Mart stood on the pier and watched the preparations.
"Why you gotta go right now?"
Rhyn paused in the act of coiling a rope. "I saw something right before the gator surfaced. Some kind of charm hanging from the trees."
"You think maybe a lizard put it up there?"
"Maybe. I don't know. But the gator sure as hell didn't tie it to the branch, and it didn't bite off five people's hands just for fun. Someone's behind this, and once they realize their pet is dead, they'll haul off. Find a new hole to squat in."
"But Rhyn..." Mart rubbed his chin. "You'll be out there at night."
"Got no choice. I'm the one who keeps you all safe. Can't always wait for the right time to do that." Rhyn tossed the rope into the skiff and set his longsword on top of it.
"You got plenty of choice. You took up this job on your own and we were happy to let you, 'cause you're good at it. But you can stop whenever you want. You've paid your debts and then some." He paused. "It wasn't your fault."
Rhyn stared out into the black of the swamp. "I'm gonna head out. I'll come back when it's safe."
Mart shook his head but said no more.
Coming Next Week: Creatures of the deep marshes and old wounds torn wide in the second half of "The Swamp Warden."
Amber Scott is the author of several chapters in the Pathfinder's Journal, as well as numerous Paizo RPG products, including recent releases such as Heart of the Jungle and Halflings of Golarion. She writes from her home in Canada, where she lives with her husband, Jason, and her two cats, Dabu and ZugZug.