After the dragon left we reentered the cabin and filled our empty sacks with dried food. There was plenty to choose from, but with a sigh we knew better than to grab anything that was messy, heavy or perishable. We didn’t know how long our journey would take.
Once back in the open Silriend gave us the lay of the land.
“We want to avoid the desert. The only reason we survived was through the help of the Ghosts of the Hidden. To the north there are the untracked Snowy Mountains, to the south the Deadmans Swamp, so named because nobody has ever entered and come back alive. I think our best chance is to skirt the swamp to the north, staying on the fringes between the desert and marsh. Let’s go this way.”
There was a well-marked path through the light forest just south of the desert. The traveling was easy. We spent most of the day with easy walking and stopped at a convenient spot for the night. The next day we started again.
“This is too easy,” I said, half to myself.
“Oh hush up,” Merla said. “You are always the glass is half full and the longer we talk about it the more evaporates kind of guy.”
“Ha, ha,” I said. But then I stop and stood still.
“What?” Merla asked.
I used my finger to shush her.
I listened closely and then sniffed the air.
“The wolves are on our trail again,” I said. “We need to go a different way.”
I slowly turned and listened. In one direction I heard the sounds of water and splashing, yet something else. I sniffed. I was sure there was a trail I could find. I could smell it.
“Follow me,” I said.
We walked for less than an hour before the ground became squishy. I concentrated. Off to either side I could hear the splashing sounds of water, but in the middle there was the sound of solid ground. I continued, more carefully, listening as hard as I could.
We soon saw many open pools around us. For a moment the sounds confused me and I wasn’t sure of my next step. I sniffed.
“Yuck, why are you sniffing?” Merla asked. “Even to my nose this is awful.”
“Shhh,” I said. “I’m getting my bearings.”
“Bearings?” Silriend asked. “We are heading right for the heart of Deadmans Swamp. What more do you need to know?”
“I can smell and hear dry land. Or could if you two stopped chattering. Quiet!”
After a few more seconds I had it. I also could hear that the wolves were in pursuit, or at least one was. We had to hurry.
“Follow me by stepping exactly where I do. Don’t stray an inch,” I said.
“That’s fine for you to say,” the little king said. “You take one step for every four of mine.”
I looked at him and thought. “I will be sure to not step over any water unless I tell you. I will stop where we turn. Follow a direct line between my steps. We need to hurry. The wolf is almost on us.”
We walked for another two hours before stopping for lunch. For most of it, the path was only as wide as from fingertip to fingertip when I held my arms out, though it often got thinner. I found a small area of higher ground that was dry for two steps in each direction. We’d be safe as we ate.
“You know nobody has ever crossed this swamp, don’t you?” Silriend asked as we finished.
I shrugged. “There is always a first, isn’t there. I hear the wolf coming. I think it is just one, but it is huge. Don’t you hear it sniffing? Let’s go.”
We stood up and Merla pointed. “Oh! I can see the trail now. It is so obvious.” She started to take a step.
“No!” I said. I grabbed an arm.
With a big splash Merla instantly sank, almost pulling me in after her. Her head briefly went under, but, with the little guy’s help, I was able to pull her back onto dry land.
“You cannot see the path,” I said. “That’s why everyone else failed. What looks like dry land is still swamp. I can hear it and smell it. Continue to follow my footsteps.”
The sun was beginning to sink. I had to find a dry spot big enough so all of us could sleep comfortably. But that was the least of our problems.
“I think I hear your wolf now,” Silriend said. He was in the rear and nervously continued to look back.
The path made a quick turn around a large pool. There was a spur, I stepped out onto the spur and motioned for the others to stop and stay back. I glanced back. The area behind me appeared solid.
The wolf came out into the open, just across the pool from me.
“You have done amazingly well, human,” the wolf said. I knew this wasn’t a normal wolf, but a servant of Zurlfed. “Even the most sensitive of my clan would have had difficulty following such a trail. I will admit that I survived only by following your scent. My pack stayed behind.”
“Thank you,” I said. “It was a treacherous trail.”
“I need you to return with me. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will bring back your bodies, and the swords you carry, if you do not cooperate.”
“You, alone?” I asked.
The wolf laughed. “Even with your weapons, you are not a match for me, alone, at least not on this narrow path. I have you at a disadvantage because with my four paws I can more easily maneuver and stay afloat than you.”
“Really?” I asked. “Try.” I held my arms out. I heard a small gasp from Merla, who assumed I was repeating the performance I had done for the dragon, Glindilla.
Without hesitation the wolf leaped over the pond, at the last second I stepped out of the way. The large animal landed on the “dry land” behind me, but continued through the fern and grass, a hole being created with its splash.
I pulled my sword out. Lightning flashed from it as I unsheathed it. The wolf could swim, but I would be ready.
After a much longer time than I expected, the wolf surfaced. It took a deep breath and went under again.
“I saw fear in its eyes,” Merla said. “Terror.”
The wolf came back up and started to claw at the path, trying to drag itself up.
“Something has me!” it said.
I raised my sword.
The wolf closed its eyes and bowed its head.
“I understand, human,” it said.
I swung and hit the rising tentacle. I lashed out again, this time closer, and severed the tentacle grasping the wolf’s leg. There was an explosion of tentacles and teeth from the water. My sword flashed lightning again, a hole being ripped through the clouds by the upward fire. The tentacles sank into the swamp.
The wolf scrambled onto the path.
“Why did you save me, human?” it asked.
Truthfully, I didn’t know myself.
“Because you are too noble to die in such a way,” I said, not being able to think of anything else. “I know your kind is not really an enemy of mine, but Zurlfed has misled you. My argument is with him, not you.”
“Thank you,” the wolf said. It then did something awful. It shook, spattering us all with mud and water. “Ooops, sorry.”
“That’s OK,” I sad, wiping the water off. “I’m going to pass and I’d like you to get between myself and Merla. Oh, by the way, I’m Lorunce and the little guy is..’”
“…Silriend, king of the Hidden Folk. I know. And I am Pack Leader Warph.” The name sounded like the bark of a very small dog.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
I passed the wolf and felt it fall in behind me.
As we continued on I thought about how my two heightened senses worked together so well. I could hear the watery sounds to the side of the path and the absence of that sound meaning that the land was dry, but it wasn’t exact. I could also smell the putrid water and the more bitter smell of the land, but again, not enough to be safe. But when I combined these two things in my mind, it became like a map. I could tell where it was safe without being able to know how I knew. My sight was usually wrong, so I trusted everything else.
The smell diminished and so I knew we were past the heart of the swamp and were headed out. There was a slight rise and we came to a larger dry area, big enough for all of us to sleep. We stopped and began to get the camp ready.
“At least one mystery has been solved,” Sirlriend said as he kindled a fire.
“What is that?” I asked, getting a ration of food.
“The sword you are carrying,” he said. “We now know that it is the mythical ‘Trowr’.”
“Yes, the sword of lightning. In our oldest deepest myths Trowr was held by the demigod Quob. Trowr could only be used by one who had proven worthy by selfless acts. Trowr would also chose who it would be used against. Quob killed his brother, Zinzle, when he pulled it out to save Zinzle from the giant Orp. It was only then that he discovered that Zinzle had plotted to kill him to gain the magic sword and that Orp was a vegetarian that was helping the demigods, not hindering. Even with that knowledge, Quob went insane after killing his own brother. Myth says he then destroyed the sword before killing himself with the shards, but today we prove myth wrong. You are carrying Trowr. The sword is whole.”
“And so is Warph really our friend? Uhm, where is he?”
“He left as soon as we arrived,” Merla said. “I didn’t think anything of it. I can’t tell if he is friend or foe.”
We all turned. Warph entered camp dragging a deer.
“We dine well tonight,” the wolf said. “Sorry, but I don’t like dried food.”
I didn’t complain. The deer was good both cooked, the way us two legged folk liked it, and raw, the way our four legged friend ate his portion.
I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all when I laid down to sleep. I trusted Warph.
I didn’t even try to imagine what would come next.
— — —