A cave, he thought. Close enough. This must be one of their dens. He raised his hands to see if he could find a ceiling, but there was nothing.
From the sloshing sounds and the hollowness of the voices around him, he knew he was in a closed chamber of some kind. He remembered what Taian had told him about never knowing what poisonous creatures might be inches away; remembered that the hunters did exactly this for their livings, and shivered. He was thoroughly chilled anyway. He wondered how well they knew the needs of humans, if they would allow him to get warm and dry somehow.
“Hello?” he ventured, to see if they would object to his questions. There was no reply, only further splashing. The voices had ceased. He held his breath and listened, but heard nothing more. They’d dropped him here and gone away.
Gorlen huddled for awhile on the wet bank, but as he grew colder, he decided that movement would be wiser. He went onto all fours, crawling away from the water, but had gone no more than a few feet when he bumped into a wall – a slimy mass of tightly tangled cords and cables textured like rubbery bark.
He followed the wall until it led him back to water, within several body lengths. He could not imagine this was a true home – not even an amphibian’s. Nor did it bode well for his comfort. He had to clench his jaws to keep his teeth from chattering.
Suddenly there was a bubbling sound, and a choking breath.
Gorlen drew back to the wall, trying to see anything, but failing.
He didn’t need vision, though, to recognize a boy’s curses.
“Jezzle?” The boy grew quiet. He could hear him paddling quietly, then dripping as he hauled himself onto the bank.
“Is . . . is that you? The bard?”
He moved toward the voice, put out his hand and felt the boy’s face; he tightened his grip on Jezzle’s shoulder.
“But how’d you get here?”
Quickly Gorlen told him what had happened since Jezzle’s abduction.
“They’ll work something out,” he promised. “I’m sure of it.”
“Well, I’m not waiting around,” Jezzle said. “If they think they can hold a hunter. . . .”
“Jezzle, be calm, be patient. It’s what your father and sister would want.”
“My pa hunts phibs, he doesn’t bargain with them! You can’t trust the halfbreeds, you idiot, they’re worst of all. We’ve gotta get out of here before they come back and kill us.”
“I don’t think that’s what they had in mind. Why would they have left us here if they meant to kill us?”
“Hell, nobody understands the phibs – they’re stupid animals. You’ll see what I mean when we swim out of here.”
“Swim – where?”
“Down, out, and up. I do this all the time – swim into empty dens for practice, you see? This is nothing to me. Are you coming?”
“I – I can’t let you do that. I gave my word.”
“You can’t stop me, can you?”
He didn’t give Gorlen time to answer. He heard the boy hit the water.
Gorlen pictured Taian’s reaction when she learned that he had let her brother go alone into the swamp. Try explaining diplomacy to a rash youth. . . .
Gorlen stood clumsily at the edge of the bank, filled his lungs with air, and dived. He felt relatively sure of the direction by which he’d entered the den – at least, he felt sure until he found himself swimming into thickets of submerged rootwood. He clung to the roots in order to keep himself from succumbing to his one true desire, which was to bob back to the surface of the enclosed pool and await the return of those who held his life in their webbed hands. Resisting the temptation of a passive captivity, he squeezed the air from his lungs and dragged himself deeper, going hand over hand, flesh over stone.
His head began to throb. Between the roots were spaces wide enough to accommodate him. One of them was the passage the phibs had taken. He thrust blindly through one promising opening and stroked desperately toward the surface, face tipped up so that he could suck air the instant he surfaced. He was discouraged, to say the least, when he plowed full-face into a root cluster.
Thinking to swim around it, he struck out for open water – but found only more thick wooden cables enclosing him.
Gorlen saw clearly that he was encaged in the root mass. From the throbbing pressure of his sinuses, he estimated that the surface was ten feet above – it might as well have been ten leagues. He clawed at the roots, telling himself he would not panic.
The water, black until now, began to fill with streaming lights. A distant liquid music swelled in his ears as though an operatic riverboat were passing overhead. This developed into a rich, throaty vibration, a catfish purr. According to those who had been revived from the edge of watery death, drowning was almost peaceful once you gave in and inhaled the waters, once the body surrendered and let the soul drift free.
Gorlen clung to this last hope as he opened his mouth and inhaled –
Warm, fishy air.
He nearly choked. Cold lips out of nowhere pressed tight to his own. Opening his eyes in disbelieving terror, he saw nothing. Nor could he move; something powerful bound his arms to his sides, albeit without hurting him.
Reflexively he breathed in deep, then deeper still, unable to believe that there was air enough to fill him. There was a rich taste in his lungs, an undercurrent to the clammy essence, some perfume that flooded his brain and seeped down his nerves like a whisper, nudging him with secret knowledge, eking out revelation on such a fine level that he felt his atoms were conversing with a stranger’s atoms.
The mouth sealed to his own began a slight suction, encouraging his exhalation; he gave up the stale air gladly.
On the second inhalation – shallower, less desperate – his blinded eyes lit up with a vision of the swamp, all its tangled waterways cast through him like a glowing net whose intricacies were as homey and familiar as the sound of his own pulse. He knew his location: near the sea, not far from Dankden.
Dankden! Human town! At the thought of the place, he felt a violent urge to flee at any cost, to swim and keep swimming until he had put that loathsome blot far behind him. An evil paradox posed itself in the same instant: there was literally nowhere left to run.
The swamps, once vast enough to remain uncharted even by their most ancient inhabitants, had dwindled alarmingly within the span of several generations; encroached on by human dwellings, drained and poisoned and tamed by air-breathers, the swamps had been reduced to a few last drops.
Fear and frustration filled Gorlen; he drank them in even as he withdrew from the verge of death. His heart rate slowed. He was sinking, dropping free of the root-clutches.
He continued to breathe slowly, his savior somehow producing fresh air for him, none of it laced so powerfully with the visions of the first few breaths. His toes sank into bottom slime.
His captor puffed him full of air, gently closed his lips to seal it in, then launched him up. He paddled weakly, limp but buoyant. Moments later he broke the surface, tasting wind and rain and a vast open night. He looked down but the black water betrayed nothing.
Thinking of what was down there, and what might surprise him here, he called quietly, “Jezzle!”
The boy didn’t answer in words; instead, after a moment, Gorlen felt a hand on his arm. Then came Jezzle’s whisper: “Good, you came. Now we have to find our way toward the sea. From there we’re home free.”
“There’s an open channel just there,” Gorlen said. “If we can get into it, the tide will carry us out.”
“But the tide’s still at peak,” Jezzle said. “You can’t even feel the swirl in here – and when it starts out, it just makes false eddies.”
“Don’t worry,” Gorlen said, sensing the swamp around him like a living map. “I know what I’m doing.”
“How could you know? You’re a bard! Even my father’s been betrayed by the suck.”
Gorlen quelled a momentary impulse to share his experience with the boy. It was important to waste no time; but more than that, his rescue seemed sublime, magical. He did not think he could find the words for it . . . not yet.
“We can’t stay where we are,” he said. “You might as well have remained in the den, if you weren’t willing to risk the tides.”
The boy fell silent.
“If you don’t want to follow me, fine,” Gorlen said. “But I’m gong now – toward the sea.”
He began to swim in what he knew was the right direction, and Jezzle – without a stronger opinion – followed.
As he swam, he felt no fear of the waters around him. Everything seemed quite different since his entry into the swamps, when every shadow had threatened.
He knew there were dangers here, but he also knew how to recognize them. The hardest thing of all was to keep heading toward the dark spot of treachery that ravenously fed on the edges of the swamp: the city of Dankden. In his heart, Gorlen wanted only to flee the place; but he owed the boy a safe journey home.
He still had hopes of seeing Taian again, and of achieving some kind of reconciliation among the phibs and their hunters.
They moved into steadily wider channels, the trees ever thinner around them, until at last they emerged in a wide tidal flat, with open sea ahead of them, and juts of mist-hung rock standing up beyond the waves.
“I can’t believe it,” Jezzle said. “I know this place. How did you find it?”
“Gargoyles have a faultless sense of direction,” he lied. “The curse carries with it a few advantages.”
They followed the treeline, sometimes clambering over sandbars as the tide receded, but mainly keeping to the trees. Gorlen’s sense of dread increased as they approached Dankden, which threw rays of sickly light out over the flats far ahead.
It was a relief when he sighted a pure silvery glimmer some small distance into the swamp, among the trees, an image which made his heart sing with hope for reasons he did not fully understand, but which had something to do with the clammy breath of life he had received.
“Look there!” he called to Jezzle, and started off into the swamp until he reached the object of so much joy. This was a cluster of silvery wet globes, piled among the knotty strands of a knuckleroot, barely visible as the moon peeked out from the slight gap between clouds and horizon.