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.
Art by KyuShik Shin