In the Marshes
(Events continued from A Warning for Catriona - and Keary: The Fire)
Keir moved as silent as a shadow beside her as she penetrated the Ghost Fens. It was some time since her journey there with Keary. Paths had, she realised, shifted and altered, but the way the murderers had taken was clear enough to her trained eyes, even though they had been at some pains to disguise their tracks.
For some three hours, as the sun slowly rose, she followed their path, and as she did so, she concluded that they were not really familiar with the fens - that they were cautious rather than certain of where the safe areas were. Certainly they had no Mist with them, who never set a paw wrong in the dangerous, boggy land.
Then she heard voices ahead - tired, angry voices.
Catriona signalled to Keir to stay at her side, and then took a moment to nock a precautionary arrow to her bowstring. Very carefully she moved forward, placing each step softly as she moved to keep herself hidden from prying eyes. Her ears strained to catch fragments of the conversation, and she keep alert for any sight of her quarry.
"A warning?" There was a burst of laughter. "That was your warning!"
"Aye," drawled a voice in response. "It'll will warn those smallfolk that they have more powerful enemies than they dreamed of. A foretaste of what the Brave Companions will do if they catch them."
More laughter. Catriona judged there were more than three there - perhaps five, or six.
The mention of the Brave Companions brought a frown to Catriona's face. She had only ever heard rumors about the sellswords' reputation from places far away, but from the little she had heard, the Bloody Mummers were a group she would prefer to avoid.
Catriona took advantage of the laughter to creep a little nearer, taking care to keep hidden behind the tall reeds and sedges. She hoped to be able to spot enough to see if these men used this area as their base, or if they were merely resting here. When she got as close as she dared, she paused to watch and listen for a little longer. Keir crouched beside her, her eyes and nose scanning for signs of danger beyond Catriona's senses.
It seemed to be more than a stopping place, but less than a base; a temporary encampment that could be quickly moved as and when necessary. Keir's response suggested that she could smell meat - as a small peat fire started to burn, so could Catriona. It looked as though the men would be here long enough to cook, eat and sleep.
The time had come to seek reinforcements. Catriona slowly and cautiously moved away from the encampment, taking care to remain as silent and as shielded from view as possible. When she and Keir had moved a safe distance away, she picked up her pace, noting landmarks along the way. She left a few subtle signs to remind her of the route, just in case rain washed out the tracks anew. A broken reed here, a rock there...nothing that men as clumsy as these would notice unless their suspicions were raised, but enough to allow her to find the encampment again more quickly than before.
When she was a good distance away from the encampment, she turned to Keir. "Find Mist. Find her! And bring her to me." She motioned back towards the direction of Marshend, hoping that the direwolf would be able to remember her sibling's name from their games many months ago. Catriona then continued trotting in the direction of Marshend herself.
Keir bounded away, seeming to take the command in her stride. As Catriona continued, the way seemed quiet and peaceful, until she could smell smoke on the air - the aftermath of the attack on the inn. A few more minutes, and she was out of the Ghost Fens and on the road back, at some little distance from where they had found the body of Yuanna.
Keary was there, or at least a little distance off the road; he signalled her with a low whistle.
He was dressed in the manner of the crannogmen, boiled leather pieces over heavy cloth, all dyed in mottled green. His hooded cloak was dark green on the inside, misty grey on the other, and he had his dark short sword and a quiver of arrows at his hip. A short, heavy bow was slung over his shoulder. Mist appeared out of nowhere to sit, panting, by his side. There was a rather unhealthy glow in his eyes, perhaps set off by the greenish mud or paint he had applied to his face and exposed skin.
"I left instruction," he said. "Yuanna will be cared for, the inn will be seen to, and our meeting place is being moved. Finally, I have time to do something." He glanced back the way Catriona had come. "What did you see?"
Catriona plucked up a stray reed and twirled it between her fingers. "The fools who did this don't know the fens as well as you," she began. "They're resting at a small encampment a few hours into the marsh from here. There are at least 5 or 6 of them, and they're cocky enough to think that no one can track their pathetic attempts to cover their trail."
She stripped the reed in two as she continued. "It's what I overheard that made me decide to come back rather than try to learn more. One mentioned something about this being a warning, and that powerful enemies were involved. And something about this being just a taste of what the Brave Companions will do if they catch them."
Disgarding her shorn reed, she worried a stone with one foot. "I wouldn't know the Brave Companions if I saw them, so I can't say whether the men in the fen are they, or others."
Catriona shrugged her shoulders. "I know someone's been asking around the Lake after someone of my description, but I don't know who or why. Whether that has anything to do with these men and what happened today, I don't know," she sighed. "When I saw that these scoundrels were there for a least a feeding and rest, I came back for you. I marked the path so that I'll be able to find the camp again faster on the return."
"What they've done must have an answer," Keary said. "I don't know what the Bloody Mummers want with you, or even if it's the same group. We'll find out. The Fens are going to take them." He glanced back the way Catriona had come. "The question is, do you want to save one of them to find out? Otherwise, I don't intend for any of them to leave the marsh alive."
"If we can keep one of them alive for questioning...temporarily...that should suffice," Catriona replied. "The Fens can drink all of their blood after that. The only good enemy is a dead enemy."
Letting out a low whistle, she called Keir back to her side. "Is it just the two of us, or should we wait for others?"
Keary shook his head. "They'll meet with us later," he said. "We won't need them, not here."
He knelt down and started to draw in the mud. "Assuming you came from that way, there are several ambush points... deep water here... adders breed here. If we let the wolves leave tracks for them to follow, let them get excited, let them get greedy... they will think they are the hunters. But they will be the prey." He looked up. "Let's see the camp. Perhaps one or two will have an unfortunate turn during the night."
Catriona nodded. "This way." She set off at a brisk pace, Keir close beside her. As the direwolves and their human companions drew further into the fens, the smell of smoke from Marshend faded on the winds. In time, the hunter slowed their pace, both to doublecheck the subtle trail signs she had left, and to keep alert for any unexpected company.
After they had been traveling for about 2 hours, she stopped on a dry bit of land to confer with Keary in a low voice. "The camp isn't too much farther from here. They're encamped in a drier clearing surrounded by bog. The reeds are pretty high there, and there's an occasional shrub, but there's not a lot of other cover immediately around it." She gave Keir a scratch behind her ears while she spoke.
"The good news is, however, that the dry patch is pretty small. Small enough that they probably set up their privy outside its perimeter," she added.
This seemed to be the case. When they circled beyond the perimeter of the encampment (out of sight and hearing of the camp), a rather strong smell, at some distance from the clearing itself on a small tussocky island in the bog, suggested this had been utilised by more than one of the men.
"Looks like a great place for a late-night accident to me." A ruthless glint was in Catriona's eyes. "Perhaps in the morning they'll even find evidence the Monster Direwolves of the Ghost Fens dragged off a midnight snack."
"That sounds like an excellent plan to me," Keary said. "I'll set up over here... Mist, come with me... and I'll go in at the worst possible moment. Wherever you set up, let's make sure the one they're facing away from goes in first." He matched her look. "They should suffer."
"Agreed," Cationa replied. "Once someone is indisposed here, whoever is on the far side gets to catch him with his pants down first." She gave Keir a hand signal to follow her, then moved around Privy Island to an area opposite Keary. She found a good spot where she and Keir could be hidden amidst the tall reeds and sedge, yet have a good view of the island. She made sure her bowstring was taut, her arrows slid freely from her quiver, and that her blades were sharpened before she settled down to wait.
They didn't have long to wait. Two men came together, laughing and talking - from their conversation it seemed as though the younger had been one of those involved in the killing of Yuanna, for he was describing how she had begged them to spare her.
Keary tensed, and his lips pulled back from his teeth, but he kept silent and grabbed the scruff of Mist's neck to signal her not to growl. As enraged as he was, he kept them both perfectly still...
The men made for opposite sides of the tussock, back to back, unfastened their small clothes and, still laughing over the burning of the inn, began to add their own water to the watery marshes.
Catriona grimaced for a fraction of a second when she saw that the two men were going to be facing opposite directions, then tapped Keir on her left shoulder before releasing her hold. As the direwolf bounded across the far end of the cassock, Catriona shifted her grip on her sword hilt and tensed, ready to spring at the nearest man.
Keary shook his head just slightly when he saw the positions the men had taken. If not from behind, then, from the side, he thought, and started to watch Catriona's position to see which man she was going for...
No. Movement. Keir was moving. Their attention would be taken that direction, Catriona would be closer to -that- man... Keary headed towards the other.
The two men continued laughing and talking together until one shouted, "Holy Father! What's that?"
The panic in his voice made the other turn, and both turned to stare after the direwolf. Neither were looking where Catriona and Keary waited.
"it's a ... " began one, but never finished - because then Catriona reached him.
As Catriona raced towards the man, the pace of her steps led her to a position in which her arm swing had brought her sword already forward and across her body. Instinctively knowing that she would lose precious time in adjusting for a more powerful forehand blow, she instead opted to swing her blade in a vicious backhand, her sword slashing in a direct trajectory toward the side of his neck. Her blade thirsted for a bath of arterial blood and the sweet silence of a severed windpipe.
The man arced backwards, even as his hot life blood fountained into the air.
Keary had his sword out too, but was holding it differently; instead of a slashing attack, he had his arm cocked back and his shorter sword prepared for a thrust...
At the last moment, the man swung and saw him, too shocked even to shout.
As Catriona's opponent fell, she caught sight of Keary's foe spinning towards him. She kept moving across the small island, adjusting her grip for a lunge towards the other man's unprotected back.
There would be few chances as good as this one. The man was suprised, and all he had to do was hit with the pommel instead of the blade. They had their prisoner. But Yuanna's memory came unbidden to him, her throat slashed, and Keary stabbed instead.
And stabbed, and stabbed. Lips drawn back from his teeth, his eyes unfocused, he stabbed at the man's throat and his face and his diaphragm. And he finally did stop, he smeared blood away from his eyes with the back of his hand, and said, "I'm sorry. That was stupid."
Catriona drew up short when she saw that Keary had the situation well in hand. She stood by silently, standing guard, while he avenged his loss. At some point, Keir came up beside her, then started to sniff the first corpse.
When Keary stopped and spoke, Catriona replied, "The marsh needed the sacrifice. That one was the one who spoke so lightly of her end. Blood pays for blood." She cleansed her sword on the clothing of the man she killed, then resheathed her longsword.
She knelt then, and began to rummage through the belongings of the first man, seeking anything that might identify more about this group. "We can see what we can glean from what we find on these two, then stage our scene."
The men carried little, but Catriona did discover one unusual thing - the man was carrying a golden dragon, stitched into the lining of his jerkin for concealment. On the obverse, it bore the crest of Baratheon.
"Someone paid this one well, with coin minted in the present kingship," Catriona said, turning the coin over in her hand. "I'm not sure what more to make of this." She offered the dragon to Keary. "It doesn't come close to compensating for your losses, but this belongs to you now."
"Blood money," Keary said, but he took the dragon. "It'll pay well enough for her funeral. I seem to be doing a lot of that these days."
Then, he looked towards the camp. "But still not enough."
Catriona glanced towards Keir, who was already lapping at some of the pooling blood. "It won't take much for her to help mar our handiwork with that of wolves' teeth. Combined with the wolf tracks, the unsuspecting and hot-tempered might rush to conclusions."
Catriona took a moment to survey the ground before standing. "We'll have to take a few moments to conceal any of our bloodstained footprints, but we should be able to use the wolves to lead them to a spot of our choice."
The others at the camp did not seem to have registered yet that two of their number were missing. But as Keary and Catriona waited, a yell came from the camp.
"Hey - Merco, what's wrong? Couldn't find your tinkle?"
There was a laugh in response from someone else at the camp.
Catriona snapped her fingers and motioned to Keir, who was at her side in an instant. She pointed to the neck of the man she had killed. Once Keir had a firm grasp, Catriona signalled Keir to drag the body over towards the water's edge. As the direwolf dragged the body, Catriona did a quick inspection and tried to conceal the more obvious of the footprints that belonged to her and Keary. She then moved off to the side, taking care to conceal her own new footprint.
"Release, Keir," she murmured. The direwolf let go of the body, and stood waiting. Catriona then looked at Keary. "Let's move, and find a better place to ambush them than this."
Another call came from the camp.
"Hye, Merco! Hurry it up!"
At that, Catriona signalled for Keir to follow her, and she headed away from the island. She hoped that the combination of Keir and Mist's wolfprints, and Keir's teethmarks, around the dead bodies would be enough to lead the camp men to a hasty conclusion. She moved as swiftly as she dared, but tried to avoid leaving any obvious footprints of her own. The two soon vanished amidst the reeds.
Keary grabbed his victim as Catriona went ahead, dragging the body jerkily for a short distance before dumping it face down. He hoped that it would look as if one of the direwolves had tried to take one of the men with them...
When they were a little distance away, in a spot well concealed from a view from the island by a thick wall of tall reeds but still close enough to hear loud voices from the privy area, Catriona paused. She murmured softly to Keary. "We could always try to circle around back to their camp while they hunt."
"Exactly," Keary said. "If they've had any decent training, they'll split up and leave one or two at the camp. The rest, following the tracks, they'll be at a disadvantage. If we split up, they'll be divided further... want to meet on the other side of the camp," he pointed, "that way?"
"Aye," Catriona replied. She motioned for Keir to follow her, and the two moved off as silently as they could.
It seemed that Keary was right, for as they moved to circle the camp, they heard the sound of several people leaving it in the direction he and Catriona had just left. The men were taking no particular pains to be quiet; they might think something was a little odd, but as yet they had no idea of its gravity.
From the area of the camp, a new sound arose - the sweet melancholy of a flute playing an old lament.
Pausing to nock an arrow to her bow, Catriona then proceeded to the designated reunion spot on the opposite side of the camp. She found a nice thick stand of reeds behind which she and Keir could be concealed from view from both the camp and anyone following the tracks. She then settled to wait, watch, and listen until either Keary or someone less savory appeared.
The melancholy flute played on ... as the hair at the back of Keir's neck began to lift.
Catriona went completely still, and took note of the direction of the wind. She strained to catch sight of anything unusual from whence the wind came, as well as from the direction of Keir's gaze.
It sounded as though someone was moving slowly and stealthily through the marsh.
But ... towards the camp - not away from it.
Catriona signaled for Keir to stay at her side, then proceeded to creep cautiously forward, trying to catch sight of whoever else was sneaking through the marsh towards the camp. Perhaps this was Keary...and perhaps not.
The grass was waving ... clse to the ground. A man might catch the higher grasses in his hands to still them...
The sort of greeting Keir was preparing suggested this was not Mist ... nor Keary.
On the other side of the camp, Keary was taking a similar position- with bow strung, arrow nocked and ready, he was moving through the rushes as silently as he could. Mist was close, just ahead and to the side; Keary wanted her there, just in case things went wrong...
Mist was tense, moving into position, ready to spring as they heard a hoarse baritone strike up, keeping pace with the melancholy note of the flute. At least two in the camp then. But was Catriona in position? By now she should be...
But Catriona saw the grasses sway once more, and a man-sized head appear through the reeds, although she knew the body that would follow was small.
Davin, the self-proclaimed leader of the Giants of Pentos...
Keary moved more slowly, arrow still nocked, at the sudden presence of a second person in the camp. His senses were alert for the others returning, but the opportunity to learn their plans and perhaps their sponsor was too important...
There still just seemed to be the two of them in the camp - but Keary had no way of knowing whether Catriona was yet in position on the other side. Still, he had Mist at his side ...
Catriona crouched stock still in the reeds, her knuckles white about her bow and string. The sight of the little man here, where he did not belong, confirmed her earlier doubts about Davin. She watched and waited to see what the midget was about to do, her ears straining to catch any sound from the camp, Davin, or the men outside of camp. The tension in her shoulders mirrored that of Keir beside her.
Davin looked around cautiously.
Then he slid a flute from his own pocket and began to play.
Catriona's eyes narrowed as Davin pulled out his flute and began to play. She started to raise the bow and pull back on the string, prepared to let her arrow fly as soon as she was convinced he was up to no good....
And then Keary heard the strain of a second flute at some distance, near where he would expect Catriona to be.
Things were starting to get out of hand. Holding out his hand, palm down, in a silent signal, Keary arrowed in towards the camp. Mist heeled at his side, ears switching between up and down, lips pulled back in a snarl. It was a very similar look to what Keary himself had.
Davin was playing a fantastic counterpoint to the first tune - there was something eerie about the music, and the hackles on the necks of the direwolves began to rise. The singer and the flute-player in the camp broke off.
"What was that?"
"I don't know."
"Marsh boggarts ... "
"I don't know."
Both of them seemed rattled.
Keir, as the music reached a high keening note, suddenly gave a low growl. Davin's eyes widened; he looked apprehensively towards Catriona and Keir, and stopped playing.
The music had unnerved Catriona as much as it had Keir. Clearly from the voices in the camp, the men there had not expected the flute duet. Catriona acted on instinct. She stepped out from where she crouched, her bowstring still taut and the arrow pointed at Davin. Glowering at him, she raised her finger to her lips to signal him to stay silent.
The voices came again from the camp.
"We should go and see ... "
"D'you want to?"
"No ... "
There was now only a thin line of reeds between Keary and the men. He could see them, their backs towards him as they stared in the direction where the notes of the flute had sounded a scant few minutes before.
Things were getting too complicated. The other flautist couldn't have been Catriona... could it? She and Keir were out there, who knows how many others, and two more out towards Privy island.
Instinct told him to fade back into the marsh and try again later, but that would leave the ranger exposed... and he needed her. No. Stick with the plan, he thought, and trim the odds... run later, if need be.
He launched an arrow at one unsuspecting man's back.
The arrow flew, straight and true.
"Kill," he said to Mist, a second later.
The flautist turned to stare, bemused, as his fellow crashed to his knees and then fell forward, the arrow protruding from his back. But not for long, for the direwolf was on him, tearing at the throat that would never make music again.
Confused shouts from the far side of the clearing suggested that the others had found the wolf-ravaged corpses in the fens.
Keary bent down, yanked the arrow out of the chest of his victim, then raveged the man's face and neck with his knife.
"Mist," he said, "come here. Good girl."
Once he had patted the bloody ruff around her neck, he did his best to quickly cover his tracks and led them back around the edge of the camp to where Catriona should be...
Davin was silent, his eyes fixed on her, the flute held to his lips.
Then there was a gasp - and the growl of a direwolf in the clearing ahead, almost immediately followed by some shouts from the part of the marsh where they had left the corpses.
Davin lowered his flute, and she saw he was pale with fear.
"Put your hands on your head," Catriona commanded. Her bowstring was taut, the arrow directed at Davin's torso. "One false word or step, and you die."
Davin raised one hand to his head and - moving slowly so that she could see that this was all he was doing - he slid his flute back into his jacket pocket before placing his other hand on his head too.
She said something gutteral in a low voice to Keir, who drew close to the small man. The direwolf's fangs were bared in a snarl, a menacing growl rolling from her as her warm breath pulsed against his chest.
Only when Keir had Davin under close guard did Catriona lower her bow and step closer to the midget. She patted him down for weapons, all of which she removed from his possession. She then pulled a second bowstring from a pouch at her belt. She wrenched Davin's arms behind his back, and then trussed his hands tightly with the bowstring.
He went in for daggers, small and deadly. The dull sheen on their edge suggested they might have been treated with some sort of poison - but this was not all of them.
"Start walking towards the clearing," the hunter ordered. "And keep your mouth shut until I ask you something. Any more lily-tongued lies from you, and the 'Giants' will be minus their head."
Davin gave a faint sigh, shook his head, and then walked forward obediently towards the clearing.
As they moved towards the clearing from which the most recent growl had been heard, Catriona looked and listened intently for any sign of Keary or of the other men. Right before she, Davin, and Keir would break cover from behind the rushes into the clearing proper, she placed a restraining hand on Davin's shoulder and said in a low voice, "Hold here." She then paused to get a better sense of where her friends and enemies were.
The first thing she saw was Keary, with Mist by his side, both marked with blood, moving cautiously towards where she was standing with Davin.
At almost the same moment, Keary became aware of Catriona and her prisoner.
"You two OK?" Catriona said. "Sorry about the delay, but I reeled in a keeper. You find entertainers in the oddest places these days...."
The hunter nodded towards the direction of Privy Island. "Shall we take care of business, then sort out what song this one sings?"
"The lady," said Davin nervously, "is under a misapprehension ... "
"And the dwarf," Catriona snapped, "has problems keeping his mouth shut." She signalled to Keir, who loomed closer to Davin and growled. Catriona used one of Davin's own daggers -- one of the poisonless ones -- to cut off a strip of cloth from the small man's shirt. She then gagged him with the cloth. "Your short tale can wait."
Davin rolled his eyes but - understandably - said nothing.
Keary looked as if he were about to explode, but somehow managed to control himself. "Marvelous," he said instead. He met Catriona's eyes. "Truss him up, too- he'll be a liability if we take him along. And you, my friend," he said, turning back to the dwarf, "had best hope we get back soon. If you're not quiet, if you leave here... well... I hear there are dangerous wolves about."
Catriona forced Davin to his knees, then pulled out another bowstring from her pouch. As she used it to securely tie his ankles together in an imitation of the knotwork that already bound his hands, she muttered, "Second bowstring I've wasted on you today." She inspected the ground briefly to ensure that no sharp rocks were nearby, then gave the small man a shove, so that he fell to one side, bound and gagged.
Standing up, she looked at Keary. "Let's finish this. But if we can take one alive...briefly...he can come back and carry the dwarf for us."
They left Davin (he writhed a little and attempted to protest through the gag), and moved forward to Privy Island.
Here they heard the voices of several men - their voices raised in concern about the condition of the bodies they had discovered un the water - the first two victims.
More than two, Keary thought, and crept closer- as much to gauge their numbers as to hear what they had to say about the victims.
Keeping her bow with notched arrow at the ready, Catriona followed suit, moving as steathily as possible to learn more about who faced them. Keir padded softly alongside her.
From their voices and positions, Keary and Catriona would guess there were five or six of them. And, worried by the thought of wolves, they seemed determined to stick closely together.
Catrriona leaned close to Keary to whisper softly. "We could take position on either side of the causeway to hit them as they leave the island, trying to drop as many with arrows as we can before engaging. If they run or get too close, we send in the wolves."
"A good plan," Keary agreed. "I'm game. I'll set up over there." He looked full at her. "Be careful."
Catriona smiled grimly in return. "Aye, you, too. Let's hit them as soon as two of them reach that thatch of sedges." She motioned to the spot in question.
The hunter gave a hand signal to Keir, then moved off to one side, the black direwolf padding alongside her. Soon the two of them vanished into a thick patch of reeds and rushes. From within their hiding spot, Catriona had a good view of whoever would exit Privy Island, but she and Keir would hopefully be concealed from all but the most prying of eyes. She bent close to Keir's ear to whisper "Hold", then knelt with her bowstring taut, ready to let her arrow fly.
Keary set up in a similar spot, his bow creaking as he pulled the string back to his chin, and had a fleeting moment to wonder why he had told Catriona to be careful... when he had never done so before.
After a moment, three men emerged from the boggy lump that was Privy Island, clearly making their way back to the camp, wary, and looking around. The others seemed to be staying with the bodies for the moment.
Stick to the plan, Catriona thought, then improvise. Her bowstring taut, she took aim at the man closest to her side. She waited until the three men reached the designated spot, then she let her arrow fly at her target. As soon as her arrow flew, she started to nock a second arrow to her string in preparation for a launch at whoever still stood.
The first man fell with a strangled cry and then a splash as he hit the water. The other two whirled to face Catriona - or rather, where they thought the arrow came from - and then dropped low to avoid presenting obvious targets.
Catriona waited patiently for her next shot. She was prepared to release her arrow at the first target that presented himself...or at the first sign of movement from Keary, in order to keep the enemy's focus in her direction.
"Delicious," Keary murmured. As the two remaining men turned in Catriona's direction, he launched an arrow at the nearest man's back. He smiled as he fitted another arrow to his bow.
The man dropped like a stone, crashing into the waters of the marsh. The third, hidden behind a tussock of reeds, shouted a warning to those left behind on the island.
"Watch out! There's more than wolves here! Archers!"
Keary ducked down, expecting those on the island to immediately start scanning the marsh; he put a hand, palm down, in a signal to Mist to do the same. Slowly, he started to move to a new position closer to the island.
With her next exhaled breath, Catriona uttered a soft low "Hold" to Keir. The two crouched stock still behind their wall of rushes, trying not to betray their position any further. Both ranger and direwolf had long experience in holding in a hunting blind.
Catriona kept her arrow taut against her bowstring, and scanned for any sign or sound of a target. If she caught sight of the man who had shouted, she fully intended to put an arrow into his hide. If one of the other men appeared and gave her a better shot, she planned to let loose her arrow at him instead.
And if all else failed, she would use her shot to create a diversion to cover her and Keir's moving to another position. A shot aimed off to her left, fired low towards the water should create quite a splash.
From where he was, Keary was closer to the island and able to reach it more easily and more silently, moving whenever the wind blew, for the sound of the rushes stirring muffled his and Mist's movements. He pressed on, and soon found himself close to the clearing where they had taken the first two men.
As yet he could see no-one, but he heard a voice speaking.
"It will do no good if we return with the task half accomplished. We need proof that the map was destroyed!"
"Sooner return without proof than be murdered where we stand," said another, gruffer voice....
Meanwhile, Catriona was seeing a movement from where the fellow had hidden. A ripple in the water - no more. And then she realised - he was trying to make his escape through the water channels, where Keir could not track him and where - if he dived below the surface - her arrows would be deflected.
In one fluid motion, Catriona stood up and fired her arrow towards the fellow. As she released the arrow, she gave Keir a gutteral command that set the direwolf bounding forward, intent on killing. As she thrust her bow over her shoulder, she drew her longsword and rushed after the wolf in pursuit of the man, as quickly as she could run.
It was harder now, splashing through the water. Keir had only snippets of scent every now and then, and the channels twisted and turned. Mist was descending - he might still be fleeing, or he might be waiting there, ready to attack her in his turn. And every step was leading her father from Privy Island - and Mist and Keary.
Catriona gave Keir a low whistle, which brought the direwolf back to her side. The two of them stood still, surveying the marsh for a little while, just to see if there was any sign of their quarry.
She then gave Keir a hand signal, and the two started to move much more cautiously and silently back towards Privy Island....
The map! All this for the map? Keary knew that it was important, but the degree of the response was far beyond the value of a map that only got them in the general direction of its prize...
... if it was even the half of the map that he knew about. How is it that this all came to a head -now-?
The opportunity for another kill was too great, however. Keary moved closer, shadowing the same path he had taken for their first kill.
He saw two men, speaking together. Both were armed with swords - and one was wearing chain mail under his jerkin - Keary saw it glint as he turned.
Keary, just to be extra careful, stayed still; his hands were full, but he hissed softly at Mist to keep her down and quiet. Before he did anything, he wanted to make sure there wasn't a third person moving around the island...
From Mist's behaviour, it seemed as though there wasn't. She was eagerly focused on the two men ahead of her - and Keary knew her white head would snap round in an instant if she had detetected anyone else.
And then, from some distance, there was a terrible unearthly scream....
And then Catriona saw it - only visible from this direction - the skidding mark of a foot where someone had hauled themselves out of the water, on the edge of the bank of one of the small, shifting islands.
Ever so cautiously, Catriona approached the island upon which the footprint rested, looking for any more sign of the man who had thus far eluded them. Her longsword ready in her right hand, she had the other hand resting lightly on the scruff of Keir's neck, prepared to let the direwolf attack if they caught sight of their enemy unawares.
A broken twig on a brush suggested he had gone further in, moving as softly and as furtively as he could. Keir was growling, very softly - she could sense something ahead - and she didn't like it.
And then, ahead, there was a terrible, unearthly scream.
Catriona released her restraining hand from Keir's ruff, tightened her grip on her longsword, and moved forward carefully. Her shoulders tight, her eyes and ears kept constant vigil for signs of her quarry...or the cause of that terrible scream.
She did not have to look for long. Five paces - and the corpse of the man she was seeking was at her feet. His body seemed to have been ripped apart - and on his face was an expression of stupendous terror.
Keir whined and stayed still, staring at the undergrowth ahead.
At the sight of the bloody corpse, Catriona immediately froze in place alongside Keir, her longsword still up in a defensive hold. Even as she was dispassionately noting the type of wounds on the dead man, she forced herself to direct her attention to the undergrowth and surroundings which so captivated Keir. She used all of her senses to try to discern what sort of danger lurked within.
Ever so slowly, she started to back away, unwilling to offer an unshielded side to whatever horror it was that could eviscerate a man in a single attack.
Keir matched her pace, growling low in her throat.
A wind ruffled the grasses, the low stubby trees of the island. And it was a cold wind, a wind of the North ... so cold ... so cold. Colder than anything Catriona could ever remember in her life before.
Save once, long, long ago.
Catriona's face went as pale as a fresh winter snow, her eyes widening in horrified recognition. Dear gods, not here. As the bone-numbing cold seeped into her, she forced herself to battle the inner terror of the memories of the past. With each slow and steady step backwards, her thoughts resonated all too loudly in her head. They. Can't. Be. Here. Her pulse pounded with the mantra of denial.
A vision of her stashed saddlebags, still in the hidden cellar of the burnt Song and Sheep, flickered through her mind. A flash of objects many would think mere trinkets, reminders of the forgotten Children, that she would now do anything to have at her side.
In a soft, but firm voice, she murmured to Keir. "Retreat. With me. Retreat."
The young direwolf moved back with her, step by step, slowly, growling softly and all her hackles raised.
With their slow retreat having not yet triggered an attack, Catriona continued to fall back steadily, keeping alert for any signs or sound of motion from anywhere around her. She also kept note of the unnatural chill in the air, watching for any further changes in its degree or location.
As she retreated, she also tried to see if there happened to be a dry branch or cluster of reeds anywhere nearby in this godforsaken marsh.
Keary couldn't pass up the chance; when the men turned, he shot an arrow at the mailed one. He was ready to drop his bow and draw his sword, if the other man was ready to rush them...
The arrow flew true, but the chain mail of the armed man was excellent. He took the arrow with a grunt, but a shot that should have kulled him merely set him back with a grunt; he didn't even lose his footing, although it slowed him considerably ...
The other man charged forward with a yell, clearly not of a mind to stay and await the next attack.
In one frozen moment, Keary was kneeling, frozen, bow in hand, panicked... in the next, he had rolled forward and to the side, away from Mist, his sword drawn in a fluid motion, a spike for the man to impale himself. The attack was far too smooth to show the moment of panic as anything other than a ruse.
The man might have avoided the spike but as he ran forward, Mist leapt at him, snarling. He swerved to avoid her, but it was enough to make him stumble forward and fall ... onto Keary's knife. He crashed down on top of Keary, twitched once and was still, his hot blood flooding out over Keary's hand and wrist and the dead weight of the man's body pressed down on him, crushing him - although he could see over his shoulder. Could see the armed man approaching him, a feral grin on his face as he drew a long thin skinning blade.
"Now," he said, "shall I stick you or the wolf first?"
Keary dropped his silence, even as he tried to push the dead weight of the first man off himself. "Fool," he said pleasantly. "Touch either of us, and you won't live to make it out of this marsh. Your only hope is to make a deal."
"A deal?" The man laughed. "A de ... "
He words ended in a grunt and then her dropped to his knees with an expression of profound stupefaction on his face. Then he toppled forward, crashing face down beside Keary and the man on top of him.
Behind where the armed man had stode was Davin, the Giant of Pentos, wearing a grim expression and holding a sling in his hand. He shrugged.
"You don't use ropes to restrain a tumbler," he said simply. "Oh, she's good, very good. It took me a little while to get free."
That part of Keary's mind that was worrying about Catriona and the distant scream now came to the forefront; but he still could not afford to leave Davin here. Warily, he pushed the body off him and wrenched his short sword free.
"Perhaps I judged you too hastily," he said. "But it still does not explain how you managed to come here... just at the right time... at this precise spot in the marsh."
"I'll tell you later," said Davin. "For the moment ... I'm wondering if I chose the right one of you to go after. I thought the lady might slit my gizzard - but since I heard that scream, I'm wondering if someone slit hers."
"I'm going to go find out." Keary tilted his head. "You've already had the chance to run. You coming along now?"
Davin nodded. "Yes. As long as I can keep you and the wolf between us. In case she mistakes my intent again."
"Until we've had a long talk, I think, she's not the only one with a question about intent," Keary said. "But there's no time. C'mon."
There were a bunch of reeds, somewhere to her right. The roots were sodden, but the stems and heads looked dry enough.
Ever so carefully, Catriona shifted so that she would be able to reach the reeds. As Keir kept guard, she sheathed her sword and pulled out her knife to lop off a bunch of the reed stems and heads. She stuffed those in one of her belt pouches to keep them dry. Then, she paused for a moment to pull out her flint and tinder, which she used to set the remaining dry reed heads afire.
Resheathing her knife, she pulled out 2 arrows, then tied some of the dry reed stems around them as evenly as she could on short notice. She set one arrow back in her quiver. Grabbing her bow with one hand, with her makeshift flammable arrows in her other hand, she watched and waited to see if the horror in the marsh was coming any closer. She also looked to see if she still had a view of the dead man's body from here. She stood vigil near her burning patch of reeds, close enough to use them to set her flame arrows alight if need be.
She could just about see the dead man's body ... just his legs from here - but nothing else, nothing that might suggest a reason for the fear, the killing cold.
And then, a sound. A dragging sound. Keir began to growl.
And Catriona saw that the dead man's feet were slowly, steathily disappearing from view - as though he was being dragged away ...
Catriona's first instinct was to yield to her fear and to turn and run. Part of her did not want to face what was dragging the man away. But ... if she left ... she might never to see whatever it was that brought the terror and the bitter cold. Was this her childhood nightmare, made real where she least expected? She would awaken screaming every night, never sleeping soundly again if she fled before she knew what lurked in the dark places of the marsh.
She touched her arrow to the flames, and inched forward just far enough to try to catch sight of whatever was moving the body away. At a moment's notice, she would either fire her flaming arrow at the horror ... or flee as fast as her legs would carry her.
She advanced again ... and saw a white mist, a heavy white mist that enveloped the upper portion of the corpse. And as she saw it, she also saw tendrils begin to stretch out in her direction ...
Barely keeping her terror in check, Catriona let loose her flaming arrow at the mist as she started moving backwards towards her flaming patch of reeds. As soon as the arrow was free of her bow, she yielded to her fear, and fled as fast as she could, leaping over the burning reeds in the process. "Run, Keir!" she hollered, oblivious to who else in the marsh might hear her. Whoever the men that she and Keary stalked were, they were mere ants compared to this frozen, wispy danger.
Suddenly, from some way across the marsh, Keary and Davin could smell smoke.
And then they saw flames leap up ...
They had not headed far in that direction before they saw Catriona tearing headlong from the blazing marsh island, Keir at her side ...
The marsh blazed up as Catriona fled, splashing through the shallow water ... Keir anxious at her side.
And straight into the arms of Keary, with Mist to one side, and the small figure of Davin standing prudently at a little distance behind him.
Catriona's eyes were wide and unfocused as she ran into the trio.
Keary automatically started running the same direction as her. "What?" he asked. "What is it?"
It took the hunter a few moments to slow down, but only after shooting an apprehensive look back over her shoulder. Keir slowed alongside her.
"Something's out there," she forced out between efforts to catch her breath as she crouched forward, resting her hands on her knees. "Something that kills in a blow. It bring with it a frigid chill, colder than cold."
Keary's eyebrows knitted. "What?"
She glanced back the way from which she and Keir had run, then looked at Keary once more. It was only then that she seemed to notice Davin's presence. "I should have known the Jester would get free," she said with a wry smile. "I hope you didn't destroy my extra bow strings."
"All preserved, my lady," said Davin, patting his jacket pocket. "We travellers waste nothing."
Catriona bent to pick up a mostly dry branch that had fallen from one of the short, stubby trees that dwelt in the marsh. She spent a few moments tying some dry reeds to one end, then used her flint and tinder to set her makeshift torch alight. "I only hope that fire combats the killing cold. At least it let me get this far alive."
She met Keary's gaze directly. "The other one of the trio we ambushed, he's dead. Ripped apart by this thing. All I saw of it was a white mist, with tendrils that reached towards me. And I felt the cold, the bitter, bitter cold."
She paused, weighing her next words carefully. "Whatever that mist was, or hid, it started to drag the body. I shot a flaming arrow at it and ran. Like a frightened little girl." Disgust laced her words. "I ran."
The eyebrows headed upwards on Keary's face at this point. "What!?" he repeated.
Catriona spat, trying to clear the taste of cowardice from her mouth. She jabbed a thumb in Davin's direction. "I don't know who you really are, little man, or why you happened to be in this place right when all of this came down. But whatever your role, or those of the dead men, all of us are nothing before this killing evil." Her eyes were blazing emeralds as she said her next words. "We are NOTHING."
She looked towards where the body of one of the men Keary had killed lay, just ahead. "We should probably search the corpses...then burn them." Her jaw clenched tight. "There are places the dead hunger for the living. This may be one of them."
"That's just a story, a children's..." Keary looked back the way Catriona had come. "All right," he said after a moment. "If we can get away... back that way... there's something we can use. I was saving it for a rainy day. Well, a dry one, actually. But it's a couple of miles away. I was going to... encourage... any survivors to head there."
"Then please," said Davin, "in the name of the Seven - well, perhaps we might omit the Stranger on this occasion - but in the names of all the rest ... lead on!"
Catriona nodded, "Aye, but perhaps we should first try to quickly search these bodies...and those back at the camp. Just in case upon our return they've, er, moved." She seemed quite uncomfortable with that latter idea.
Her gaze drifted back the way they had come. "Keir seemed to sense the killing cold before I did. If we have the wolves keep watch while we search quickly, hopefully we will be forewarned if it comes after us."
Davin didn't look too happy at the idea of staying to search - or of using the direwolves to warn them - but he nodded reluctant agreement. Clearly it was safer to stay with the wolves and their keepers than to attempt to make his way back to Marshend alone.
Catriona gave Keir a hand signal, which triggered a soft whine from the direwolf, followed by another hand signal from the hunter. As Catriona set to searching the body of the mailed man, Keir crouched nearby, her ears alert and her muscles taut. The wolf's attention seemed to be focused more on the way from which she and Catriona had fled, yet every time Davin moved, Keir's eyes tracked the dwarf.
Davin made several forays to search the dead man, each time eliciting growls from Keir.
Finally, the small Giant sat back on his heels and looked reproachfully at Catriona.
"Lady," he said, "I'm all willingness to aid you in your quest. But not at the cost of one of my hands. 'Tis true, you can be a one-handed tumbler. But to be a one-handed dwarfish tumbler would be a little too much distinction, it appears to me."
"Ah, but your smooth tongue would soon counter your missing hand, I'm sure," Catriona replied. "Although it would be more risky to annoint your blades without poisoning yourself."
Davin sighed, seated himself on the bank and waited. Keir continued to shoot him suspicious glances - and gave the occasional growl.
Keary had set up a position, too, where he and Mist could watch the way Catriona had come. With the dwarf's last statement, he looked back, smiled thinly, and returned his attention to the marsh. He glanced back occasionally as they searched.
Something seemed to catch his attention, and hold it, on the island where the fire was. It was strange - like sun flashing on a looking glass ... or something half seen that vanishes when it is looked at fully; a note of music that suggests a whole rich melody dying away ...
Catriona's search of the mailed man turned up three golden dragons - all stamped the with mark of Barathorn, common now in Kings Landing, a medallion bearing an image of the Warrior, carried for good luck, and a long thin tube of wood, stoppered with corks at both ends - not a usual thing at all, for the cork muct have come from the Summer Isles and the tube was most skilfully carved.
"Something here worth looking at later," Catriona notified Keary. "And some more contributions to the rebuilding of the Song and Sheep." She took care to secure her findings deep within one of her pouches for the time being, then looked towards Keary to ensure that no trouble yet drew near. She then quickly turned her attention towards the second dead man nearby.
And beyond it to the two men they had killed first ...
All her search turned up was a collection of silver stags that suggested the men had been well paid for their efforts. One carried a letter from his mother; all had medallions similar to the first she had found - one to the Smith; another to the Crone.
Davin looked at them thoughtfully.
"You can buy these easily enough in the South below the Neck," he said. "They're not an Order - people just carry these as good luck tokens." He spat into the water. "Much luck they brought them."
Catriona had now amassed sufficient gold and silver for Keary to build the finest tavern north of the Neck, should he choose.
Catriona glanced to where Keary stood guard. "Ready to fall back to the camp?"
"Oh most definitely," said Davin. "This place makes my skin creep. And if it discomposes you, brave lady, then my skin will creep all the faster."
"The camp, and a bit farther," Keary said. He looked back in the direction of the mist. "How likely is this thing... stuff... to follow us all the way back?" He hesitated.
Catriona thought for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "I'm not sure. I don't know if the flame arrow I shot at it tempered its tastes, or if it's just waiting."
"Ever seen wildfire used on it?"
A wry smile crossed the hunter's face. "I've never seen wildfire used on anything, let alone the killing cold that lurks here."
She whistled for Keir, then started to head to the camp, intent on seeing if their search yielded any other clues before they retreated further.
The men at the camp yielded more money, and some other personal effects (one carried a stick of a scented Dornish root in his pocket, presumably to chew in order to sweeten his breath),.
Again Keary was aware of that strange sensation - almost a call towards the island, where the flames were now dying down. It did not strike him with fear or dread - more like a song that he could hear more clearly if he moved closer ...
Keary actually turned back in that direction. "Do you hear that?" he asked. "Like a tune... something important over there... we missed something."
"No," said Davin uneasily. "No, I don't hear anything."
His voice seemed a little loud.
"Not yet," Catriona frowned. She directed her attention back towards the island of flames, to see if she could detect what Keary had noticed.
She was aware of the muted roar of the flames and the smell of smoke ... but nothing else.
"Whatever you're hearing, I can't detect it," Catriona replied. She thought back to the fear that had driven her to flee. "If you want to go back and see if the mist is gone, we can...but I think each of us needs to take along a torch. Just in case."
She glanced at Davin. "And if there's something that you know that's relevant, speak up now, little man."
"Torches, yes," Keary said distantly, and set himself to lighting three of them.
"There's a legend," he said. "A legend about three Knights and the battle on the Redgrass Field. Or rather ... after the battle."
He stepped forward to take a torch.
"Perhaps it should wait till we're back in the village."
"Perhaps it shouldn't," Keary said immediately afterward.
"Yes, I think now's the time for the telling," Catriona agreed, her hand moving slightly as she spoke. Keir's gaze focused intently on Davin.
"Like I say," said Davin, "it's a legend. But it's said ... something was lost on the Redgrass Field. Lost and found - by three Northern Knights loyal to the Black Dragon and his twin sons. They carried it away into the North ... intending to take it to the Wall - and beyond. But they came to the Ghost Fens one dark night. They entered - with their direwolves by their sides. And they were never seen again."
"Does the legend say what was lost and found?" Catriona asked in a strangely distracted tone. Her eyes were focused somewhere back towards the burning island. "Or why they hoped to take this object to the Wall and beyond?"
Davin hesitated. Then he said, "They say it was Night, the sword borne by Aemon, youngest of the twins of Daemon Blackfyre. They say ... when his father was slain, Night was broken - and Aemon threw it down and took up Blackfyre instead, fighting with it until he too was slain by Bloodraven. Bittersteel took Blackfyre and bore it away, but Night was taken by the Three Faithful Knights into the North. It's a tale you won't hear here in Westeros, in truth, but it's told in Pentos, where the Golden Company is still held in respect."
Catriona glanced at Keary, then fumbled in her pouch for the tube of wood she had taken from the mailed man. "Perhaps now's the time to see what this holds." She removed the cork from one end, slid out whatever was inside, and held it so that Keary could see it.
It was a letter, written in a crabbed hand that would take some deciphering. The language too seemed strange.
Keary frowned at the letter, at least what he could see of it. "I didn't know the full legend. But that must be the sword I've been looking for."
Davin's head shot up, and he stared at Keary.
Catriona's nose wrinkled in dismay at the sight of the unfamilar scrawl, and she let out a small sigh of frustration. She rolled up the note, resealed it in the tube, and secreted the tube away again. "Whatever this means, it'll have to wait until later." She kicked a small stone, and it skipped away to splash in the nearby water. "And little good I'll be in figuring it out," she muttered darkly.
She grabbed her torch, then glanced towards the burning island. "As much as I'd rather not see that mist again, if it's connected to your sword, Keary, let's go." She laughed, a brittle edge to the sound. "I'm a far cry from a knight, but at least we have direwolves. And torches. I just hope it dislike flames as much as I'd like it to." "
The hunter started to turn to lead them back the way she and Keir had run, but she suddenly spun back to look intently at Davin. "In case this path leads to our doom, I want some answers." She continued, "That eerie tune you played, before I caught you. It wasn't just a song -- there was an edge to your version. Did you awaken whatever lurks within the Ghost Fens?"
Davin shook his head, looking worried. "That's not a use of it I've ever heard. I played it to distract them, for it's made for unsettling folks."
As she motioned Keir to her side, she also added in a soft but determined voice, "And why exactly were you here in the marsh? If all you are is a simple traveling tumbler, I find it hard to believe that you just happened to wander by this camp at exactly the right...or wrong...time."
He hesitated, and then shrugged.
"There's precious few, lady, that makes a profit from the tumbling alone. We sell our skills in many areas. Shall we say that gathering tales and passing them on is one such talent?"
Catriona scowled at Davin, her eyes burning into the little man. "If the mist takes me, and you survive, hear this. I swear by the Old Ones and the Children of the Forest that I will haunt you and every living thing you love for the rest of your days and nights until I have the truth."
The little man bowed. "Believe me, lady, that will not be necessary. I shall, for what it's worth, be at your side." He grinned suddenly. "It's not every day that I get to walk in legends."
Catriona thought for a moment, weighing something in her mind. She pulled out two of Davin's daggers -- ones with blades undecorated by substances unknown -- from where she'd stashed them, and held them out, hilt first, to the dwarf. "Two daggers for two bowstrings? And you'll get the laced ones back later, provided you prove your good intentions."
He looked a little astonished, but bowed again, before slipping one dagger into its sheath at his waist, the other into his sleeve.
It would, it seemed, be possible to wade back to the burning island - it was no higer than their knees - slightly higher, of course, for Davin. The direwolves swam and easily as they walked but, young and they were, they could probably keep their feet.
Catriona led the way back towards the burning island. The knuckles of her left hand were taut about her lit torch, and her right hand rested uneasily on her sword hilt. Keir moved alongside her, as on edge as her mistress.
Davin made no complaint as he entered the water behind her, wading deeper and deeper before they began to climb slowly up the island bank.
"Mist," Keary said, which was enough to bring his direwolf to his side. He gave Catriona a searching look in response to her handing the dwarf daggers, but said nothing. Rather, he held a torch in one hand, gripped the hilt of his sword with the other, and tried to follow the sound to its origin.
The stench of fire was in their nostrils once more and the ground underfoot, as welll as being sodden, was black with ash. But, to Keary the song was becoming stronger ... through the matted and blackened vegetation.
Neither of the direwolves seemed very happy - but their surroundings was enough to explain that; certainly they showed no sign of reacting to a threat such as Catriona had encountered.
Still on edge, Catriona scanned the scorched vegetation for any sign of anything unusual, dangerous or otherwise. She also was hypervigilant for any change in temperature that might herald the return of the killing cold.
As yet there seemed to be no sign of the cold. But she too now could hear the faint note of a flute - and it seemed to be playing a tune very similar to Davin's - as though it was trying to echo what it had heard.
Some little way in front of them, amidst the embers, there was a strange opalescent glow ...
"Now I hear it too, Keary. A flute, playing a song much like Davin's," Catriona said softly. "And what's that glow?" Her hand pointed towards the strange light. "There's no sign of the killing cold, but I don't know what that is...."
"It's... bizarre," Keary said. "Of all the things I expected... not this. I've seen strange lights in the marsh, but nothing like this." With no feeling of the cold that Catriona had described, he headed forward.
There was something in the ground - half uncovered by the fire, perhaps - or perhaps by another agency. A long slender shape, like a mussel shell - those freshwater mussels that came from the northern end of the lake.
Only this was not black but white ... no, not white either, for it glowed with blue and green and rose and gold ...
Whatever it was, it seemed sealed and entire - about five foot long, three foot wide and a foot at its thickest point. But overall, the resemblance to a shell was startling, even as it lay half buried in mud, ash and burned and rotting vegetation.
"What in the North is that?" Catriona exclaimed. "I've never seen anything so colorful." Her hand stretched out to touch the object in a gentle caress.
The substance seemed to glow under her hand, warm and rich and inviting as she pulled more fronds from its smoothness.
"Glowstone," said Davin, awed. "I've never seen it so pure, so fine. And never so large and unbroken."
He looked up at them. "It's a rock, a stone, from the hills of Ghiscar. Usually - you see it as small pebbles. Some of our healers believe it brings luck ... and good fortune. But some call it maiden's tears."
Catriona continued to stroke the glowstone, fascinated by the colors it yielded under her hand. "In all the harsh beauty of the North, I have never seen such a rock as this." She moved her hand to trace the object's uncovered outline, and brought the torch closer to see what patterns the firelight shed along the rock's surface.
"Why do some call this glowstone maiden's tears? Where this Ghiscar, and why would such a stone as this be here, of all places?" As she spoke, she thrust the end of her torch in the ground to keep it upright, and turned her attention to using both hands to uncover more of the glowstone.
Keary, clearly suprised, cocked his head to hear if the sound was actually coming from the stone itself.
"Ghiscar is an island, a long way away," said Davrin solemnly. "Far beyond the Free Cities ... They says the stone comes from a maiden whose true love was slain by a dragoin, and so sorrowful was she that she wept and wept her life away - but her tears turned to stone that he love might not be fogotten ... a pretty tale, but no more."
The music was growing louder, more insistent - and yet it had a strange, hollow sound - as though it was trapped inside the shell. For, as Catriona uncovered more, it seemed more and more like a mussel shell-shaped box ... and now the gold clasp and padlock was becoming plain.
"Do you still hear it?" Keary said. "The music, I mean." He was trying, unsuccessfully, to not look excited. Considering all the events of the day, it was a welcome change.
"Yes," Catriona answered, a genuine smile breaking through the soot, grime, sweat and dried blood that covered her face. "The song is coming from inside the glowstone!" She motioned towards the padlock. "I could attempt my usual brute force on that, but I suspect that one of you two has skills more suited to the task." She bowed her head briefly towards Keary then Davin in acknowledgement.
Davin spread his hands wide. "Not I, sweet lady." He looked at Keary expectantly.
"I am appalled, just appalled, that you would think I had anything to do with such nefarious skills," Keary said, even as he removed a length of rolled-up leather from a pocket. Once unrolled, it revealed a number of metal picks and other strange implements. "One might think you're saying I'm not completely genteel... ah, here we are, this one should fit... and to think that I gave you the hospitality of my home," he said, as he fitted one of the picks to the lock.
It seemed the right size ... and yet the lockpick was unusually difficult to manipulate. No ordinary lock this - Keary quickly realised that it would call for all his skill and delicacy in the art ...
Keary's protests against the slight to his honor triggered a hearty laugh from Catriona. "Oh please forgive me for my transgressions, sirrah. I'll leave you and your dignity to wishfully thinking the locks open," she said with a wink. "Come on, Keir, let's make sure nothing creeps up on us while we're enthralled with the glowstone's secrets."
Grabbing her torch again, she repositioned herself to a place from which she could both catch sight of Keary and Davin, as well as see if anything else neared. Keir moved to sit alongside her, although the direwolf's gaze seemed much more focused on Davin than anything else.
As she watched and waited, Catriona surveyed the surroundings to see if she was close enough to spot any sign of the body of the man the killing cold had slain...or of anything else.
There was no sensation of cold ... although she saw a trail of reddened, crushed grass, leading to the waters of the fens - as though some heavy bloody object had slid from the bank into the water ...
Or had been dragged.
Catriona swore softly, her fingers involuntarily clenching hard around the handle of her torch. "I hate to add more pressure to your efforts, Keary, but I think we might need to move. Soon."
The hunter motioned towards the bloodstains. "Something dragged the man's body away into the water. Aside from that mist...and us... I haven't seen any signs of any predators around here large enough to do that. Especially any who would come this close to a recent fire."
She glanced back towards the two men near the glowstone shell, her earlier good cheer now as ephemeral as the mist. "If you can't get that open soon, maybe we should try to carry it somewhere safer. I don't want to be here if the killing cold gets hungry again."
There was no feeling of cold ...
But across the water, there was a sudden rupple and the the fat plop! of a bubble. And then another.
Marsh gas, perhaps?
The ripples faded and the surface was glassy calm.
"Keir, guard," Catriona barked sharply as she set down the torch she carried with one hand, perching it upright with its edged pushed into a pile of soot, and pulled free her bow with the other. As she nocked an arrow to her bowstring, her gaze never left the area of the bubbles. She scanned the water for any further sign of the source of the troubles.
"Something's out there. Under the water," she intoned in a low voice that would carry, just barely, to Keary and Davin.
"Reptile, maybe?" Keary did his best to manipulate the lock with the pick in his hand. "I think you may have the right of it- I may need some more time to work on this. Somewhere far from here."
"Back at the inn?" suggested Davin hopefully. "I can carry it - I'm strong." He grinned suddenly at Catriona. "And my legs are too short to run away from the pair of you, if you think I'll make off with it." Then he looked out over the still water of the marshes and swallowed. "Are there ... many reptiles there?"
"Only the dwarf-eating kind," Catriona replied.
Davin chuckled. "Then it's not just the box you'll be carrying to dry land, Lady."
"Try to avoid that," Keary said. "I've had enough of a workout tonight. But it does raise the question of when we arrive... surrounded by the citizens of Marshend." He reached up, peeled off the last remnants of the subtle facial disguise he wore as Gabriel. "What you're going to say. For obviously, you'll be beyond my opinion in the matter."
The little man looked up at him - a straight, level stare. "If that's what you think, best kill me now." A beat. "Or make allies of the Giants of Pentos."
From where the hunter stood, keeping watch on the waters of the marsh, Catriona spoke, "What can the Giants of Pentos offer aside from your cover as a wandering troupe of entertainers? Why *are* you here? What brought you deep into the marsh, to this camp?"
Catriona's bowstring was taut, the arrowhead pointed in the direction of the last bubbles. Her stance conveyed the distinct impression that she could just as easily pivot to drill her arrow in any direction, including Davin's should he answer falsely.
"We can offer many things," said Davin, his eyes still fixed on Keary. "Information is the least of it."
Across the water, another line of bibbles sighed out ...
"For right now, all I want is your silence," Keary said. "When we return, Gabriel will have left on other business. I will be there. And as for the other... we need to sit down and talk, and a bit more earnestly than a simple accident on the trade road. I feel as if I've stepped into a puddle, only to fall in to my waist."
"Now you get to worry about what's in the water with you," said Davin. "Do you want to fire off an arrow at random, Lady - or do you think it might just excite it ... whatever 'it' is?"
A grim smile settled over Catriona's face. "I prefer to know what I face, to having to worry about what might pull us into the water." Still keeping her gaze trained on the area of the bubbles, she inclined her head towards the glowstone. "As soon as the two of you are ready to roll with the glowstone, I'll fire. Then whatever happens, run. I'll delay whatever it is and join you as soon as I can."
"If what lurks beneath is related to the killing cold, either my torch will dissuade it...or nothing either of you can do right now can help." She paused, then added, "Mere iron and steel do *nothing* to the Others." A soft laugh counterbalanced the slight tremor underneath her last words. "If you come across my corpse later, burn me before I walk again."
Keary shook his head. "I've lost too many people that way. No... we go together. If you don't make it back, neither will I." He tested one end of the glowstone box. "But I will do my best with carrying this thing."
Davin sprang forward to seize the other end, hoisting it as high as he could. "Now," he said, if the Lady will act as our bodyguard ... "
Catriona fired her arrow at the last known location of the bubbles, with no response as far as she could tell. As Keary and Davin manuevered with the box, she thrust her bow over her shoulder, and grabbed her torch with her left hand. She headed quickly towards where the two men struggled towards the main part of the marsh with the box, drawing her longsword with her free right hand as she moved. Keir moved alongside her, and the two kept scanning the water for signs of trouble.
All went well until they were halfway across the water that separated the burned island from the main part of the marsh.
It was no more than twenty feet in width, but Keary and Davin were into the deepest part - the water up to Keary's thighs, and nearly to Davin's shoulders, although the Giant of Pentos was making every effort to hold the glowstone casing high above his head and out of the water. Catriona was in the water too now, some three foot from the bank.
Then Catriona saw the bubbles again, moving in a line towards Keary and Davin ... and then the water began to churn and roil ...
"Run!" Catriona bellowed, as she charged further into the water, torch in one hand and longsword in the other. She thrust out towards the roiling waters with her longsword, trying to distract whatever it was that was heading towards the two men.
There was no change in the temperature of air or water, but the water churned more and then, flat on the sufrace, Catriona saw a sleek flat head ... sinuous and deadly. An eel ... yet larger rthan any eel she had even seen before - and as it opened it's mouth she saw the razor-sharp teeth that could rip the flesh from a man's bones ...
But surely a single eel - no matter how large - could not create such a disturbance in the water?
It was then she saw the second head ... and the third.
Catriona had only a split second to make her choice. She lunged forward with her sword, aiming for the nearest head she could skewer. With her left hand, she swung her torch towards the maw of the next head within arm's length.
The water was foamy and bloody all around, and writhing with slimy eel ... there must be five ... ten of the brutes in the water, and each larger than Catriona had ever seen. The eels dived for the wounded one and began to tear him apart in a frenzy ... a frenzy that could soon embrace Catriona herself ...
Keary was already egging on the two of them. "Well done!" he yelled. "But the rest are beyond us. Run, before more come!"
Catriona needed no further encouragement. She ran through the water, skirting the edge of the ever growing frenzy of eels. Keir raced alongside her in their pursuit of the presumed safety of dry land.
Davin was already on the bank, hauling up the glowstone casing. He shot a worried grin at Catriona and then his eyes widened.
"Is that your blood?" he asked.
Looking down at her leg, she realised that one of the eels had attempted to bite her ... enough to break the skin. But it had left go for some reason before it had ripped deeply into the flesh ... And then she saw that Keir had blood - eel blood, no doubt, on her jaws.
Seeing this, Keary immediately put down his end of the glowstone and began to check Mist over for injuries.
Davin gave a yell as his muscles took the full weight of the heavy box. He clung on grimly, but could pull it no higher unaided.
"Good wolf," Catriona gave Keir an affectionate scratch behind the ears as her eyes inspected the rest of the direwolf. Finding nothing, she then finally turned her attention to her own leg. She rinsed off the wound with some clean water from her waterskin, then tied a strip of bandage around it.
She flashed the dwarf a smile when she was done. "Just a flesh wound, Davin. To add to my scar collection." Her grin then faded into a slight frown. "I wasn't expecting eels. And those eels were big...but I'm not convinced they're the reason that corpse disappeared from dry land."
"They're probably the reason we won't find a floating corpse though," said the dwarf. "Shall we give them the other bodies too?"
"Good idea," Catriona replied with a nod. "It's a lot harder for the dead to walk when shredded to pieces in different eel bellies."
Catriona glanced back towards the burnt island. "Maybe we should keep moving, and save these thoughts for later. I'd rather face more eels than that killing cold...or worse...again."
The hunter contented herself with surveying the area around them for any sign of trouble until Keary and Davin were ready to continue onwards with the box.
Davin was still holding on grimly to one end of the box.
Keary picked up his end, seeing no injuries on Mist. "Sorry," he said. "I assumed you'd put your end down, too."
"And see it slide back into the marsh?" said Davin. "You might be happy to wrestle those eels for your prize - I know I'm not."
"If either of you need me to relieve you as we head back, let me know," Catriona added. "Otherwise, Keir and I will focus on bodyguard duty, with occassional stops to drag the other corpses into the waters."
"I can manage," said Davin with a grin, and he hefted the box again.
Their passage of the marsh began easily enough. But as they went on, Catriona became conscious that all sounds around her seemed oddly muffled. Her legs were suddenly heavy to lift, and her head felt too heavy to be held upright ... Keir whined anxiously at her side.
Catriona took a faltering step, then collapsed to the ground, her longsword tumbling out of her hand. "Sumthin's na gud," she mumbled, yawning. Her eyes closed, and her head slumped onto her arm. Keir nudged her, then tugged at her shirt, but Catriona did not respond.
Davin turned and gave a warning cry - which broke off when Keir looked up from nudging her unconscious mistress to growl.
Keary growled himself. "Okay, ease it down... over here," he said. When they had settled the glowstone box down, he turned towards Catriona, his hands up and empty.
"Let me see her, Keir," he said, taking a step forward. He glanced at Mist, then scrunched down so that he was half-kneeling, keeping eye contact with Catriona's direwolf.
"Keep an eye out for more eels, Giant," he said over his shoulder.
Davin nodded grimly.
The cause of Catriona's collapse was not far to seek. Already the wound from the eel bite was puffy and swollen, sending out angry lines of red that reached up towards her knee. She was not quite as unconscious as she had first seemed, for she was muttering occasionally, in a low voice.
Keary cursed, roundly and fluidly. He turned back to Davin. "This suddenly has become complicated. She probably won't be making it out on her own power. If I can't get her up and walking, we need to take more... crude... measures with that box." Keary started fishing around in a pack at his hip.
"There! Over there!" Catriona moaned, flailing her hand over toward the right. Her eyelids flickered, but did not open.
"What?" said Davin. "Where?"
He looked around uneasily.
"You know," he said, "the box is almost long and boad enough to take her - we could use it as a stretcher. It might make it seem less obvious when we carry her in ... of course, we might need to strap her to it, and her wolf might object ... "
"Of course it will," Keary snapped. "But it beats my other idea, which involves a dirty knife and sucking out eel poison. I'm no septa. Mist, come here to me. Block Keir. Protect."
"It's cold, Momma. So cold," Catriona mumbled. She turned on her side and curled into a ball.
Mist moved forward, nudging at her sister. Keir growled, but did not attack, instead contenting herself with watching Keary and Davin as they walked to set Catriona on the crude improvised stretcher. She spent more time directing her hard stare at Davin, however.
"Good enough," Keary said, cinching a crude strap around Catriona's body. "Let's get her moving. Mist... guard." He didn't try to give Keir an order, but felt confident the other direwolf would pace them.
It was not easy traversing the fens in this way, and they stopped several times to rest and catch their breath. At each point, Catriona's fever seemed unabated.
Soon they were drawing close to the village itself. Keary would have to choose whether to walk in openly, or whether to take one of his secret routes, and risk exposing it to Davin.
Keary breathed a sigh of relief, for it was certainly one of the more dangerous forays they had made into the fens.
"We need to reach the Septa," he said to Davin. "We need to skirt the edge of town, and come in by a little-known path. Now is not the time to risk the prying eyes and questions of the townsfolk."
Davin nodded. The dwarf had played his part fully, but his face was starting to look strained with weariness.
"Too much to hope this is a shortcut, I suppose?"
Keir moved forward to lick at Catriona's hand, as though to encourage her.
Catriona's eyes flickered open. She murmured something that sounded like "good wolf", then her gaze half-focused on Davin. "Who'er you?" She pulled briefly against the strap that kept her attached to the improvised stretcher before collapsing once more. Her eyes closed again, and she resumed her incoherent mumblings.
Keary smiled, guided them one direction, then switched back to another. "Since you don't know the regular path, sure, it's a shortcut."
"You don't want to blindfold me or anything?" grunted Davin, hefting the box more firmly. When Catriona gave a yelp he added, "Sorry, Lady, but it has to be done."
"And have you bump into a wall or something?" Keary said. "Maybe dump Catriona onto her wolf, Keir attack you, Mist howling, running back and forth... no, thanks. Just don't betray us... things usually get messy afterward."
He led them around the edge of town, stopping every once in a while to listen or look, mindful of increasing difficulty of carrying their load. He smiled grimly as they eventually came to the same hill Catriona had first observed him. "Fitting, really, that we take this path. But I doubt the Septa's going to see it that way."
From atop the glowstone stretcher, Catriona remained oblivious to her surroundings, her mutterings mostly incoherent. Every now and then, a "Keir" would slip out, which would bring the direwolf closer to nuzzle her mistress's hand.
Davin played his part well, carrying the heavy load, but when Keary stopped and spoke, he looked around a little worriedly.
"We still seem some way out of the town," he said. "Where exactly are you taking us?
"Up this hill," Keary said, "and then down. We'll be at the other edge of Marshend, within sight of the Septa's house. And, I pray, away from observers." He gave a grim smile and hefted the weight of the load. "One more effort, and the rest is downhill."
The dwarf grunted a reply, but applied himself once more to his burden.
(Events continued in Back from the Marshes)