The Sleepers of the Marsh
Part Two – Into the Mists and the Marsh
The path that Ket took led them into the marshes, his bare feet silent as they waded through the murky waters. Ahead of them, spread across the marshes so that little could be seen, rested a hazy mist, one in which tendrils twisted about almost as if alive and searching, growing thicker the further in they went.
“Follow close,” Ket warned. “Leave way that Ket lead and end up like them.” The butt of the spear that he carried stabbed towards a nearby pool of water. The woman following him gazed into the pool and saw a body contained within it. The eyes of the drowned person remained open, though lifeless, and their skin pale, almost to the point of translucence. It gazed upwards with a look of horror fixed upon its face, one hand clawing towards the surface of the water above it. Around the man was twined weeds, ones that gripped tight and held the body under.
The woman watched closely where Ket placed his feet and made sure she stepped where he stepped. Through the marshes he led them by a path unseen, treading lightly, testing the way ahead of him with his spear. At times the water barely covered their feet while at others it climbed up to their waists.
As they pushed further in, a distant shout sounded, carrying across the waters of the marshes. Just seen through the mists, along the edges of the marshes, could be seen the hunters, riding hard, having spotted the pair picking their way through the waters. Horsebows were unslung as the riders drew nearer, loosing a number of arrows as they rode. They landed in the waters well short of the pair. The woman laughed in the direction of the hunters and made gestures in their direction that bade them to come and get her.
Then they were into the deeper mists and the marsh around them was plunged into a gloom, the sun shaded from sight. The cries of the hunters came muffled across the waters as their prey disappeared from view.
“Will they not follow?” the woman asked of Ket.
The scrawny man shook his head. “They not know the path,” he replied. “Step off it and die. They know that. Have seen it before. Afraid to follow.”
The woman laughed again, a fey, wild thing.
As they continued on along the hidden path that Ket led them by, off beside them, half sunk into the waters, the woman spotted a block of stone looming out of the mists, its regular shape speaking of having been hewn by hand rather than shaped by nature. Other blocks began to emerge into view, as well as the odd column, standing up askance. Then to her left she spotted a statue, one whose arms and head had been snapped off, but still discernible as a woman in flowing robes despite the weeds that clung to her.
Last of all to appear were shadows that gradually took the form of buildings, half sunk in the waters, the hollowed out skeletons of what was once a city.
“So here is the secret that they searched for,” the woman stated.
“Long they search, never to find,” Ket confirmed.
They splashed up out of the marsh onto an island, one at the edge of the hidden city. A couple of buildings stood clear of the water upon it, but around it the rest of the city remained part submerged, their foundations laying beneath the waters that lapped through empty doorways.
A small fire burned in the centre of the island, the smoke from it drifting up to mingle with the mists. A woman who bore much resemblance to Ket cooked a large eel over the fire, the long beast skewered on a pole which she turned over and over to sear the flesh on all sides. There were half a dozen others to be seen on the island, all akin to Ket, being small and scrawny, muddy skinned and dark of hair and eye. Two worked on repairs to a net while the others strung up fish and eels on a stand to dry. A couple of children in loincloths ran by, though they remained silent as they played. The silence touched the whole island, the small group remaining quiet, barely speaking, and even when they did it was in hushed tones.
There was one upon the island that that stood out from the rest, a tall man, slender and clad in fine clothes, a stark contrast to the plain, limited outfit the others wore. Even despite the patches of mud that showed on his tall black boots, his black trousers with their silver buttons and the green jacket with embroidered golden thorns and scarlet roses around the cuffs and collars and running down the arms, the richness of them was obvious. He carried a slender rapier at his side as well, the basket of hilt of which was gilt.
He stood up from where he sat upon a fallen pillar beside the fire, his long, somnolent face barely changing expression. Pale eyes beneath dark hair looked over the woman.
“I see you made it too, Peregrine, and no worse for ware.”
The woman who he had called Peregrine laughed, the sound loud in the silence that clung to the island, causing the others to look around at her. “Our friend here brought me clear of the hunters, Blade.”
“Most persistent, weren’t they?” Blade observed, brushing at some of the dried mud on the sleeve of his jacket in an attempt to dislodge it.
“And yet for all their efforts, here we are where they wished to be.” Peregrine studied those that lived on the island. “Who are these people?”
“I haven’t the faintest,” Blade replied, a faint scowl touching his forehead as he worked at a particularly stubborn patch of mud. “They look like no other people that I have seen, or heard of, and nor is their language one that I recognise. Only our friend Ket here speaks a tongue that we know. The rest, when they do talk, it is in one that is not related to any other language.”
Peregrine grunted as she looked out across the marshes beyond the island, to the buildings that protruded up from the dingy waters. “Who are these people?” she asked of Ket.
“What are you called I mean.”
Ket looked blank for a moment, his expression that of one trying to comprehend the question. Then he touched a hand to his chest. “Ket.” He pointed to the woman cooking. “Sut.” Other names followed as he pointed to the rest of his family. “Tal. Gir. Fur. Eta.”
“I do not believe that he understand what you mean,” Blade pointed out. “What are you doing here, Ket?”
“Hiding,” the little man replied. “Once lived on shore. Hunted, fished. Lived at peace. Then bad men came, killed many of family. We know of ways of marsh, escape into it, hide here. Wait for bad men to go, but that many turns of moon ago. Not know when they leave.”
“Rather ironic when you come to think about it,” Blade mused. “The brothers wanted to keep us away from the ruins and yet by hunting us they actually provided us with a means to reach them.”
“The trick will be to leave.” Peregrine turned to Ket. “Aren’t you afraid that the men on the shore will one day discover the route here and will come and find you?”
Ket responded with a fatalistic shrug. “They not do so yet. Unable to find path. But if they do, what can we do?”
“Fight them,” Peregrine replied with all the fiery passion of her Aedring heritage surging to the fore. “It is better to die fighting on your feet than to die on your knees.”
“Marsh protect us,” Ket told her.
“It may not always do so. What do you know of the ruins here?”
“Always been here. Not safe. Only island safe.”
A brow arched up fractionally on Blade’s face. “What isn’t safe about them?”
“There is ghat in them. Drowned ones. They catch, make you drowned one as well.”
Peregrine’s eyes narrowed, amber eyes gleaming as she observed the city, fingering the edge of her sword. A fierce fire had awoken in her face. “We had best deal with these drowned ones then.”
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