What Marshland Is This?
by Judy Dufort
“What marshland is this?” Puzzled, Owand referred to the goatskin map the Sarken had given her. She remembered the final glimpse of his face as he strained against the forest enchantment. His last words bound her to an unwelcomed obligation.
“Nay’vir, I entrust you with my son. Return him to The City of Sarken and the guardianship of his brother.”
Why did he call me Nay’vir? I am not a monk. I was denied ordination.
She checked the symbol for north. “I know I am going in the right direction.” She whispered to herself.
The landscape was familiar; it resembled the highlands of home but menacing. The brownish colored banks and green froth of the waterway meandered ahead slicing through the tall greenswards. The large mounds of soil, gravel and twigs were disquieting. Some parts of the rises were wet others dry.
The smell reminded her of the specimen repository at the monastery. Fear churned her stomach and the stench hit her face like a clenched fist. “SALT LIZARDS!”
Her young Sarken charge dropped to his knees in front of a small puddle staining his uniform. “Don’t drink the water.” Owand rammed Gorack’s shoulder with her thigh, knocking the water from his cupped hands. It spilt on the ground.
Gorack narrowed his lips; his face produced a ferrous scowl. “I’m thirsty.”
“It is salt water.”
He acknowledged her remark with a condescending sneer. “Salt water does not exist here. You made that up.” He plunged at another puddle of water.
“Get away from the water.”
“You’re a stupid girl. You don’t know anything.”
“Are you ready to learn the price of disobedience?”
She moved her hand in a single gesture and whispered an ancient word. The vocable was a sacred harmonic linked with a labyrinth connection to a secret doctrine. Gorack was picked up and swept several feet away. He landed on his back with a thwack and an unseen clout. The strength of the blow forced the air out of his lungs; he sniveled and whimpered as he gasped for his breath.
Owand stood over the young Sarken. “GET UP.” The punitive words made Gorack grimace. He labored to his feet in an exaggerated performance.
Owand scouted for a retreat signaling him to follow. Gorack walked heavily in protest.
“Walk quietly. The noise will attract the salt lizards.”
Gorack continued to stomp in defiance accentuating each word. “I won’t be ordered by a girl or by my brother.”
“You are my charge and I am your protector. I promised your father to escort you to The City of Sarken and place you in the guardianship of your brother.”
Gorack’s glowering contempt transformed his boyish face distorting his Sarken features. He continued the thump, thud and thrash of his boots.
“You lie. There are no lizards. You are trying to control me.” He tread unremitted with raucous steps. His mouth was downturned into a contorted smirk.
“I did not promise that you would be returned alive or dead; merely that you would be returned. Your decision determines which state.”
“What do you mean?” He accented the phrase with several kicks to an unseen adversary.
A heavy rustle deep within the grasses reached their ears.
“What’s that?” His face paled, his bright eyes moistened, his feet stilled. A deafening noise surrounded them.
“It’s a male prepared to fight you to the death to defend his territory or a female wishing to mate.”
An outraged bestial hiss penetrated the air; it raised the hair on Gorack’s neck. The sound of something large was moving fast. The vibrations made the puddles quiver. Long stalks of grass bent, hedge branches creaked, broke and crashed.
“It’s coming closer!” The arteries in Gorack’s neck began to pulsate, his breathe became shallow.
A flattened pale head with a blunt snout attached to thick muscular folds of neck scales separated the wall of marsh grass. The beast raised its head and revealed pale folds of scales on its chest. Its salt encrusted eyelids blinked. The creature snapped its mouth with powerful jaw muscles and exposed rows of serrated teeth. A long tongue slid between the scored blades and twisted in the air. In a single slithering push a pair of stout creased legs came forward crashing its feet on the earth, the talons ate the ground it walked upon.
“Protect me.” The squealing tone reached higher quality. “You promised my father.” Gorack cried.
The soulless eyes of the imposing beast fixed its sight on Gorack. Green colored saliva driveled from its bony slabs.
“Keep quiet. I will distract it.”
Owand withdrew a sword from the hidden sheath strapped to her back; the sound of the scraping blade caught the attention of the whitish lizard. The colorless monster lunged at Owand with an unexpected burst of speed. Holding the grip at shoulder level, the pummel pressed into her chest she stepped into the path of the monster. She disappeared beneath the underside of the beast, the pale creature slinked away its bloody belly scraped the earth and vanished under the green lather. A carmine cloud followed the creature to the depths of the marsh.
Owand placed her hand on Gorack’s shoulder his flushed face turned ashen.
He physically trembled. “How?”
“Lean on the sand and the beast leans on the blade.”She steadied the young Sarken and pointed to the turmoil under the water. “We have to leave while they are distracted.” She guided him out of the marsh. “They are enjoying a taste of their own kind. Good thing it was not one of us.”
Gorack managed a smile.
After several hours of sharp climbs, painful falls and spills on rocky outcrops they fell exhausted next to an open meadow. Owand pulled out the map, several cyphers that had not been spoken in centuries had given up the names of mountains, valley and lakes.
“Venerable voices.” Owand thought holding the Sarken map. “It’s a map for the winged.” One symbol on the map remained a mystery, a single ten pointed star.
“We make camp here.” Owand brushed out their tracks and watched for movement on the horizon.