“Can you see anything ahead?” the merchant called up to the lanky guard in the lead. His voice fell dead amid the damp moss and still water. “Do you see the castle? Ragan?”
“No, Burgamy, I can’t see the castle yet,” Ragan replied with exaggerated patience. It wouldn’t do to aggravate the man who was paying him, no matter what he thought of the heavy-set fool. “Be careful,” he warned after a minute. “There’s a fallen tree in the path. Goddam swamp.”
The sound of dull splashing in the thin veneer of water fell dead amid the dangling vines and moss. The usual tenants of the marshy area were silent as the intruders noisily made their way through. Ragan led his horse around the green and brown obstacle, leather armor creaking softly over his cursing. Behind him, rich vermillion cloak dragging in the scummy water, paced Burgamy. He paused briefly and glanced over his shoulder at his companions.
“Are you all right, Sister Moya?” he asked solicitously as a woman, clad in what surely used to be a white robe, appeared out of the ragged mist. He offered a plump fingered hand to assist her forward.
“I am well, thank you, Burgamy,” replied Moya, avoiding the merchant’s grasp. She paused to allow her mount, also white, to steady its footing, then continued around the tree.
Burgamy made a disappointed sound deep in his throat and turned to follow.
“She won’t have you, merchant,” laughed a voice from behind him. A rakish figure in gaudy red and blue appeared beside him, a globe of bright green trailing along like a puppy behind. “You know how those *devout* Stevenic women are. You won’t see her outside of chapel, let alone out of her robes.”
“Silence, juggler. I didn’t ask your opinion.”
“That’s High Mage Tagir to you,” admonished the mage cheerfully. “Coming, oh great Sir Knight?” he called over his shoulder as the merchant moved off after Moya.
“Coming, High Mage,” a voice, followed by a large man clad in a remarkably shiny breast plate and a green surcoat. He was the only traveller not leading a horse. He paused beside Tagir. “Move it, boy.”
Bringing up the rear was a fourteen or fifteen year old boy, leading a heavy horse, a pony, and two mules. His worn tunic bore the same crest that blazoned the shield slung over the knight’s back.
“Yes, Sir Ceneham.” Gindar, the squire, picked his sodden feet up a little faster.
The motly party had been tracking around this swamp for days in search of a lost keep that Burgamy claimed was filled with treasure. The merchant had hired his companions for half of whatever treasure was found, to be divided among the five as they chose. Following a few obscure references in a an old diary he’d found, they made their way into the marshy tracts upriver of Quiron Keep. Each had their own reasons for coming, be they honor, adventure, or holy quest. Burgamy didn’t much care why they were there, only that they followed his orders and abided by their half of the agreement. There hadn’t been any difficulties as yet.
“I’ve hit solid ground,” declared Ragan out of the mist. “And the fog clears up once you get here.”
“About damned time,” Burgamy muttered. “Can you see the keep?” He laboriously climbed the little rise that elevated him a few feet above the water line to stand beside the thin man. Behind them, the rest of the party straggled up.
Ragan pointed to a large, shadowy lump in the growing dusk. “That looks to be it.”
Burgamy’s hungry eyes devoured every curve in the indicated direction before turning reluctantly back to his companions. “Since it will soon be too dark to investigate, we’ll camp here for the night.”
The squire promptly dropped the reins of the animals he was leading and stared pulling dry fire wood out of the oiled canvas pack on one of the mules. Ragan’s muttered “First intellegent order he’s given all week,” was lost in the general bustle to set up camp before sunset.
Following traditions set from the first day of their journey, the squire laid out the fire, and went to tend the horses. The fire was always lit by Tagir, as the wood was too damp to respond easily to normal flames. Ragan staked out a perimeter while Burgamy and Sir Ceneham rested by the dancing fire. Sister Moya had taken care of providing fresh drinking water, since their own stores ran out a few days ago.
She carried an iron pot down to the edge of the swamp and collected as much water as she could. Bringing it back to camp, she knelt beside the fire, leaning over the pot.
“We have drinking water yet, Sister?” demanded Sir Ceneham a few minutes later, coming closer and looming over the woman.
“In God’s time, Sir Knight,” replied Moya placidly, not stopping her prayers.
“I just wish God would hurry,” muttered the man, pacing away, around the fire and back behind the priestess. Realizing that his glaring was having no effect, Ceneham went over to harass his squire.
This too was a ritual, and no one bothered to take notice any more.
The boy took the berating in stoic silence. When you’re finished with this, do that. When you finish with that, polish my armor, and make sure there’s not a single speck of rust on it. Since coming into the swamp, rust was Ceneham’s biggest concern. By the time he’d finished his list of orders, the water was already being made into soup.
The ruins were silent. A coat of dampened dust layered everything and tainted sunlight crept down the holes in the ceiling through the remains of the second floor. The musty scent of wet stones mingled with the smell of rotting plants. Torchlight caused the shadows to dance against the worn stone floor and unsteady walls.
“This way,” said Sir Ceneham, voice rolling out from beneath the heavy torch. The sound of cascading chainmail echoed slightly in the crumbling hall. He’d decided that since there might be wild creatures holed up in the keep’s remains, that he should be better armored, so he could better protect the party. He cut an impressive figure in the full armor; it was the first time he was able to wear the entire suit on this little expedition without the fear of sinking into the muck and was enjoying preening in front of the group. No one paid him much attention.
“Are you certain, Sir Ceneham?” was the return query from behind the light. Burgamy, with Tagir at his side, moved up next to the knight.
“Quite certain,” was the sharp reply. Because his back was to the merchant, Burgamy couldn’t see the look of contempt on his face. “I’ve walked through many hallways in many keeps. This one is no different.”
“Unless they changed the floor plans from the last time you were here,” teased Tagir, his magelight making him look faintly sinister. “If you get lost, call. I’ll be happy to help you out.”
“Thank you, magician,” said Sir Ceneham through clentched teeth. He had to force himself to be polite to the cocksure mage. Considering the man could kill him with a single spell or two, it was well worth the effort.
“Can we get on with this?” Burgamy demanded peevishly. “Where’s the rest of the party?”
“Listening to you argue,” said Ragan bitingly. “If there’s anything around, it’s sure to know where we are.”
“We haven’t seen a living creature since we crossed the drawbridge,” scoffed Ceneham. “And that includes the gods cursed insects.”
“Except that squirrel Gindar tossed rocks at,” observed Tagir.
“Don’t swear, Sir Knight,” said Moya softly. She held her robe a few inches off the keep floor out of habit, despite the fact that the hem was nearly black with mud. “Taking the Lord’s name in vain isn’t necessary.”
“I’ll decide what’s necessary, Sister. Where’s my damned squire?”
While Gindar rejoined the party from gathering more rocks, Ragan and Tagir started investigating deeper down the corridor. They found a door which Ragan was busily investigating when the rest of the party joined them.
“There seems to have been a trap set on the lock,” he observed professionally, pulling a bit of metal out of his pouch. “Opening the door sets the trigger off. Somebody was obviously paranoid about his privacy. It’s a pretty good lock to have lasted all this time.”
“Just how old is it?” asked Tagir, curiously peering over his shoulder.
“How should I know? It’s not new, that much I can tell you. Now, if someone will push the door open, this should keep the mechanism from triggering.”
“Be careful. There might be something dangerous in there,” whimpered Gindar. Moya put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
Cautiously, torch held high, sword drawn in in his other hand, Ceneham kicked the door open. The worn wood crashed back on its green brass hinges. Silence rolled in after the echo and torchlight illuminated the damp, dusty bedroom. Off in a corner a pair of bright black eyes watched the group enter.
“Well, there’s your dangerous monster,” laughed Tagir, pointing. The creature twitched its bushy tail and cocked its head to one side for a better view.
“A gods be damned squirrel!” swore the knight angrily. He brandished his sword in the animal’s general direction. The squirrel sat up on its hind legs and stuffed another seed into its mouth.
“Oh, allow me to deal with it,” Tagir said gleefully, making a few slight gestures. “Wouldn’t want you to strain yourself on something so deadly.”
A thin jet of fire leapt out from the mage’s finger towards the squirrel. With a surprised noise, the animal jumped and bolted for the door, past the kneeling Ragan.
The mage laughed again, and beneath his half helm Ceneham smiled grimly. His squire giggled. Burgamy started to search the room while Sister Moya looked on disapprovingly.
The merchant was soon joined by Ceneham and his squire in ransacking the remains of the room. Ever helpful, Tagir lit his light and centered himself so that he could illuminate every corner. Sister Moya waited patiently for them to finish. It didn’t take long. Four pieces of tarnished jewelry and a pile of dead moths later they grouped back together by the white clad woman.
“This was a bit of a disappointment,” commented Tagir. “I wonder why the former occupant wasted so much time on a trap for such paltry remains.” He glanced casually about the room as though trying to determine something of the former occupant from the wreackage.
“Let’s try and find the real treasure,” Burgamy said, pocketing the dirty bits of gold. “We’ll divide this later.”
“Yes, we will,” growled Ceneham darkly as the merchant walked out past the still kneeling Ragan. “Come on, man,” he added, slapping the mercenary on the shoulder as he went by.
Ragan fell flat when Ceneham touched him.
Moya stifled a surprised scream.
“Oh, yuk,” added the squire.
A short, thick bolt protruded from the back of Ragan’s neck.
Quickly pulling herself together, Moya stepped up to the body.
“High Mage Tagir, if you please.”
Obligingly the magician allowed his light to fall over the wound, turning the blood a sickly shade of purple. The rest of the party grouped around the priestess as she probed around the bolt with skillful fingers.
“There is nothing I can do for him,” she pronounced finally. “I assume that the trap he discovered was set off, as there was no indication of someone about to shoot him. The wound was poisoned as soon as he was hit. Even if I could have gotten to him immediately, I don’t think I could have negated the poison.”
The party was silent while the nun prayed over the body, then Burgamy shrugged. “Means a larger share of the treasure for the rest of you. Let’s go.”
Moya’s head snapped around at the merchant’s statement, real anger in her usually peaceful eyes. The rest of the group walked out of the room before she could say anything. Rather than be left alone in the darkness, she completed her prayers and rose to leave.
“Oh, Lord, this is a difficult path You have set for me to follow. But follow it I shall, and bite my tongue about my companions, because I need them to complete Your holy task, to Your everlasting glory. Go in peace Ragan.” Making a gesture of blessing and another of reverence, she followed the ragged company down the hall.
Several hours later they grouped together in the crumbling main hall. Shafts of afternoon sunlight dribbled through the ceiling that used to be the second story floor. No sounds beyond that which the party made themselves could be heard.
Pickings had been lean throughout the first floor. A few pieces of old fashioned jewelry in questionable condition and a small pile of coins were all they had found for many hours of searching. The second floor was in ruins and the likelyhood of finding anything of value there without a full salvage company was unlikely. Ragged bits of what might have once been tapestries were piled on the floor and the furniture, not particularly stable to begin with but salvageable as antiques, had been all but dismantled by the searchers. Burgamy was not happy.
“If you’re trying to find the main treasury,” said Ceneham after the merchant finished his stream of complaints, “then it’s probably down with the cellars and the dungeons.
“Underground?” squeaked the squire.
“Where else, you twit?” Ceneham cuffed the boy, sending him into a little heap on the moss covered flagstones. “What’s the matter? You afraid of the dark?”
“No, my lord,” Gindar mumbled.
Tagir helped the boy up. He’d shut off his light several hours ago, pleading fatigue, and now carried a torch just like everyone else.
“We can give the place a cursory look at least,” said Tagir. “There’s enough light for that. We can investigate further if we find something.”
“That sounds like a satisfactory course of action,” said Burgamy. “All right, Sir Knight, lead the way.”
Ceneham moved off and everyone fell in behind, the squire taking up the rear.
The passage that led down to the cellars was in better repair than the rest of the first floor. Dust covered the stairs, where wind couldn’t reach and largish rocks were scattered around like pebbles, but the walls were intact and the steps solid. The unsteady torchlight caused fungi and moss to glow an eerie pink.
As they rounded the final corner into a small antechamber, a pile of rubble taller than the mage loomed up to block their path. Apparently part of the roof had given way years ago, choking the corridor with dust and dropping the impressive pile in the path.
Ceneham looked a little annoyed and the squire turned pale.
“And how do you propose we get past that?” Burgamy demanded, glaring at the knight and the mage. “This was your idea.” Although ostesibly in charge of the party, the merchant was more than willing to let someone else make the decisions so he could pass the blame of failures off later. Ceneham glared back.
“Allow me,” said Tagir, stepping forward with a flourish of cloak. He pushed past the knight and the merchant and made a show of rolling up his excessively full sleeves. Muttering softly, the mage made a few obscure gestures and started shifting the rubble aside, into smaller bundles than the amount should have been able to fit into.
The rest of the party stepped as much aside as possible to allow him room to work.
A pair of heavy, jagged boulders became visible as the smaller loose debris was cleared away. Tagir ended his first spell and took a deep breath. Moya observed him closely, out of professional curiosity.
“I’ll have to shift the rock straight up to get it out of the way,” he declared. “You’ll all have to move into the hall on the other side, so I’ll have someplace to put it.”
“But how will we get back out?” asked Gindar, white faced.
“There will be room enough to move around the boulders once I shift them away from one another,” said the mage smugly. “Now stand back, but be ready to run through after I move it.” He began to gesture and mutter again. After a long pause one of the stones shuddered and began to rise. To get it clear of the intended walkway, Tagir had to levitate the rock over his own head, which he did with agonizing slowness.
He nodded significantly to the party as the boulder reached the designated threshold and watched as they passed, one by one beyond him. Turning his his attention to the place he wanted to put his rock in, he prepared to muster more power to do it.
Then his eyes went wide as he spotted something on the stairs.
It smiled at him, winked, then flickered into something else. And in that brief instant of Tagir’s shock, he lost control of the spell. The rock landed with heavy finality, tiny plumes of dust rising to the ceiling. The mage’s four companions stared in silent horror and shock.
Moya fell slowly to her knees and started offering the prayer for the dead.
“What do you think went wrong?” whispered Burgamy, staring, a little glassy eyed at the dusty stone.
“Perhaps it got too heavy,” Ceneham said. “He did indicate it would be difficult.” He didn’t sound very confident. Both men knew that keeping the rock in the air was well within Tagir’s powers.
“The damned squirrel is back,” declared the squire abruptly.
The two men looked to where the boy pointed. Atop the boulder that had crushed Tagir, the dark brown squirrel stared down at them. Its tail twitched and it turned, vanishing into the shadows.
Ceneham cuffed his squire again.
“It wasn’t important,” he said sharply.
“I think it would be a good idea to go back up and camp for the rest of the day,” offered Burgamy hesitantly. To his surprise the knight nodded in agreement. Ceneham touched the nun’s arm with uncharacteristic gentleness to get her attention and repeated the suggestion.
Sister Moya started, looked up, then stood.
“I think open air would be a good idea,” she said quietly. “And I feel the need for purification.”
Strangely, the knight made none of his usual caustic remarks. The four made their way back up the narrow stairway and into the over-grown courtyard. By unspoken agreement, no one wanted to shelter in the great hall. Their horses and pack mules were still tethered by the remains of the fire.
“If nothing else,” commented Burgamy while Moya purified more water for the evening meal and the squire polished Ceneham’s armor, “you’ll get a larger share of the treasure.”
Moya actually stopped in the middle of her prayers and turned to glare at the merchant. “That is the second time that you have said that,” she said angrily. “There are two men dead and all you can think of is gold?”
“Sister, I don’t know why you came along, but the others were just treasure hunters and adventure addicts,” said Burgamy frankly, looking steadily at Moya’s face for the first time during the journey. “They knew the risks, just like they knew the rewards, so save your recriminations for the sinners and your pity for the masses. Ragan and Tagir knew full well what they were getting into and don’t deserve your sympathy.”
“And do you feel the same way, Sir Knight?” Moya turned to Ceneham, trying with only moderate success to hide her horror at the merchant’s coldness.
Ceneham looked up from peering over his squire’s shoulder. “I agree with the merchant, Sister,” he said calmly. “They were seasoned professionals. They knew the potential consequences. Save your worry and your prayers for the people who can benefit from them.”
Moya stared at the two men for a minute more before turning back to her pot of marsh water. Anger smoldered in her eyes. She hadn’t been prepared for such callousness when she undertook her holy journey and joined with these companions. Some of Moya’s faith faltered as she listened to the camp sounds and knelt beside the pot.
It took longer then usual to get fresh water that night.
With two of their party members dead, it was necessary for everyone, including Burgamy and Sister Moya, to take a turn on guard. Gindar woke the merchant just after moon rise for the second watch. At the knight’s insistence, he carried the squire’s short sword for defense, and Ceneham’s shield was leaned against a log so it could be banged in case of an emergency.
Barely an hour had passed and already Burgamy was bored and sleepy. Resolutely he started wandering around the perimeter of the camp with a torch trying to stay awake. He allowed his mind to wander a little with thoughts of himself, Sister Moya, a few common objects he kept around his shop in town, and the wonderful things they could do together.
As he made another circle around the tiny camp a motion by a boulder caught his distracted attention. Burgamy stopped in mid-fantasy and mid-turn, gripping the short sword a little tighter in his sweaty palm.
“Who’s there?” he demanded hoarsely. As far as he had seen, none of his companions had gotten up or even moved since the start of his watch.
There was a soft rustling of dry tipped marsh grass and a woman stepped around the shadowed rock.
She was tall and slender, wearing nothing except the mane of red-brown hair that spilled over her forehead and down her back. Pale moonlight silvered her limbs from behind and the torches flickering yellow glow caused shadows to dance on her taut stomach and breasts. Her eyes were fathomless black in the uncertain light. She smiled at the merchant, revealing long, even teeth in the yellow torchlight.
“How did you get here?” Burgamy asked, cautiously moving closer. He wondered if he had dozed off during his watch after all and was having a better dream than chaste Moya could ever provide.
The woman’s smile deepened and she slipped around the rock with a ripple of heavy hair.
“Hey! Come back here!” Abruptly more confidant, Burgamy followed the elusive figure back into the first floor ruins.
They found Burgamy’s body laying in the middle of the great hall, stark naked, without a mark on him. His clothing was nowhere to be found and no reason could be found for him to have come out to the great hall.
Sister Moya dropped her cloak over the body then blessed the dead man while the squire triumphantly declared; “I told you I woke him up. I didn’t shirk my duty!”
“Silence, boy,” growled Ceneham, adding another bruise to the morning’s set. Gindar accepted the cuff silently, and glared at the knight after he turned away.
“We’ll need to bury him,” said Moya finally, gathering up her skirts and standing.
“We don’t have the time,” Ceneham told her. “We need to find out what killed him.”
“We can’t just leave him here!”
“We don’t have a choice, Sister. And you didn’t seem to have a problem with leaving High Mage Tagir or Ragan, so I don’t see the trouble now.” Ceneham turned away. “Now come on, if you’re coming. I want to check out that corridor where we lost the mage. The last thing we need is something trying to kill us before we can finish our business here.” He marched off, calling for his squire to come help him with his armor.
In the silence of the great hall, Moya again knelt and settled herself to pray.
“Highest,” she whispered softly. “I have erred. I did not do my duty by my companions and thereby to You in their hour of need. I beg Your forgiveness. Whatever they were in life, they are Yours now, either cleansed or damned. Aid me then, in granting a last bit of decency to their bodies, along with my prayers for their souls.”
A soft white glow grew around Moya after a few seconds, then spread towards the body of Burgamy. It touched it and leapt away, dividing itself to go to the lower level and Tagir’s resting place and along the wall to where Ragan lay.
For an instant the glow became incandescent, then it faded, leaving behind only Moya’s dingy white cloak. The priestess opened her eyes and sighed deeply with fatigue. Only rarely did she try spells of such complexity, for just this reason. She spent a few more minutes in contemplation and prayer before getting up to join her companions.
The dust had settled in little swirls around the rock that had killed Tagir and the footprints from yesterday were wiped clean away. Ceneham strode past without so much as a glance down, but Moya made a gesture of blessing and warding and the squire went pale again.
They edged past the offset boulders and down another short flight of stairs to a heavy door. Time, in conjunction with the damp had warped the wood and turned the brass binding a sickly shade of green. Cobwebs choked the corners of the frame and the ancient keyhole.
Ceneham made a quick survey of the barrier, then held his torch back for the squire to take. With several powerful thrusts of his mailed shoulder, the door bent back on its hinges, then fell to the cobbled floor with a dull boom, ripping the now useless crossbow trap out of the wall. Stale, musky air whispered up the corridor.
Gindar jumped at the quick succession of sounds, and Moya winced. The knight took the torch back and stepped over the ruined planks into the cellar. Pale torchfire trebled as Moya and the squire joined Ceneham, reflecting off dank walls covered in something flourescent and yellow. The mold gathered the light and aided in brightening the dim chamber.
Chests were stacked along the walls, with tatterd, moldy bolts of cloth leaning against them. Something long and wide lay in the center of the room, covered in oiled canvas.
Gindar gasped softly.
“I’d say that we found the treasury,” rumbled Ceneham, flipping open one of the tattered lids. Leather bags, some with holes worn in them, lay piled inside, and bits of gold and silver glinted through in the wan light.
“I thought we were looking for what killed Burgamy,” said Moya sharply.
“You thought wrong, sister.” Ceneham’s voice was harsh. “He’s dead, just like the others. If what came after him comes after us, I’ll kill it. But until then, it’s stupid to go looking for trouble.” He turned back to opening the chests. Gindar joined him, raising his torch high.
Furious, Moya glared at the knight’s back, then turned and marched out of the cellar. He was a lost cause, and she was worldly enough to realize this, but she didn’t have to stay in his company.
Ceneham didn’t acknowledge the nun’s leave-taking except to note absently that there was a little less light to see by. He considered the holy woman to be little more than a nuisince, useful only because with her on the expedition they would neither starve, nor die of wounds taken in combat. As a result of the sudden lessening of light and his slight preoccupation, Ceneham misjudged the composition of the next thing he picked up. The little box shattered in his hand as he grasped it like one of the heavy leather bags.
Marsh nuts scattered over the damp floor.
“Ridiculous!” Ceneham stared at his fistful of splinters and nuts. “Who the hell is stupid enough to keep nuts in boxes! Boy!”
“Sir?” Gindar appeared by his elbow, trying hard to conceal a smile.
“Leave that torch and go get some more. And that lantern the mage toted about with him. And make sure that damned nun didn’t stray.” The knight dusted his hands off and his feet crunched on shells as he wandered around the cellar searching idly.
Gindar quickly found two rusty sconces to deposit the torches in, then hurried back up the stairs and into open air. His relief was indescribable. He didn’t like the way the shadows moved in that cellar. He’d never really liked cellars in general, but this one was worse than any of the others he’d been in.
He trotted through the remains of the great hall and back out to the campsite where Moya knelt in prayer. The torch she had been carrying was stuck in the ground beside her, burning fitfully.
“Run off, indeed,” sniffed the squire to himself. “She can’t run off any more than I can.” In her case, she didn’t have the survival skills, in his, Ceneham would find him, no matter where he ran to and make him wish he’d died. “Soon,” Gindar thought, grabbing a handful of unlit torches, then turning to root though the dead mage’s packs. “Soon, I’ll know everything he does and I’ll be able to do more than run.” But until that mythical time, he would follow and obey to the best of his ability.
Arms filled with the lit and unlit torches and the battered metal lantern, Gindar made his reluctant way back down to the cellar.
Moya was started out of her meditative prayer by the squire’s panicked screaming, echoing from the guts of the keep. She started up, stood uncertainly for a second trying to place the disturbance, then ran into the great hall.
Gindar nearly ran her down in his haste to escape the crumbling walls. In his panic, he didn’t recognize the hands that reached out to try and halt his headlong flight. He struggled wildly as Moya pulled him around and forced his back to a crumbling wall.
“What is it?” she demanded, giving the boy a brisk shake. “What’s happened?”
It took a sharp slap to get anything coherent out of the boy.
“C–C–Ceneham!” he stuttered out finally. “He’s dead! Ripped to pieces!”
“Lord above grant us mercy,” breathed Moya. For a second she wondered what could have been big enough to kill the knight, but silent enough not to disturb her or the squire. Keeping a firm hand on Gindar’s skinny wrists, she pulled him back down to the cellar, repeating like a litany that “God will protect us…God *will* protect us…”
Sir Ceneham was indeed dead, although he was not, as Gindar had said, ripped to pieces.
His breast plate was rent open, not with the clean cuts of a sword, but by four jagged gashes, as though some other-planer creature had tried seeking his heart. Beneath his helm, Ceneham’s face was twisted into a mixture of fear and surprise. His heavy sword lay in a far corner of the cellar–in two pieces.
The only other thing in the room besides Moya, the squire, the piles of boxes, and the cloth wrapped bundle was a squirrel busily stuffing marsh nuts into its mouth. There weren’t any signs of a struggle.
Gindar whimpered from where Moya had left him by the door, then, with a strangled sob, bolted back up the stairs. Moya jumped after him, clentching her will against the sickness in her stomach. The thought uppermost in her mind was that the boy could not survive alone. And neither could she.
“Wait!” she shouted after the squire. “If we separate we’re doomed!”
But Gindar, frightened and sickened beyond hearing, didn’t even slow down. Doggedly Moya followed him through the great hall and past their camp. She hiked up her robes as he charged blindly off into the swamp, continuing to call after him to wait.
Branches and vines tangled in her way, and the smell of rotting leaves was kicked up more strongly for the pairs passing. Strangely, no animals were disturbed by their charging blindly through the undergrowth.
Moya lost the squire briefly in the growing mist, and only found him again after he shouted in surprise. She reoriented herself in the general direction the sound had emanated from, and ran after.
She came upon him suddenly. Moya stumbled to a halt, then scrambled back a few steps as her worn boots began sinking into black mud.
Gindar floundered in a mud pit, his panicked thrashing only drawing him deeper under the sticky mud. His screaming was all but incoherent from terror. Moya cast about for something to throw the boy, calling platitudes all the while, but by the time she turned up with a branch long enough to reach him, Gindar’s head was beneath the mud’s slick surface. A hand grasped briefly, futilely at the knobby root Moya extended, but despite the nun’s impassioned encouragement, he was never able to catch hold.
The last of Sister Moya’s companions sank out of sight, without so much as a bubble to show where he’d gone under.
For several long minutes the nun stared at the patch of mud that now looked no more dangerous than any other patch of cleared ground. Then she dropped the root and went to her knees.
“How could You do this to me, oh Lord,” she moaned, rocking back and forth without even realizing it. “How could You do this to Your faithful, on Your holy quest? How? Was I unworthy? How? Why? How did I fail You? How?”
Moya kept repeating this, and variations until it was nearly dark. Night sounds and something hitting the back of her head finally roused her to partial reality.
She coughed, voice raw from her prayers and tears, then jerked as another nut bounced off her arm and landed in the moss beside her. Bemused, the nun stumbled to her feet. “Must get back to camp…” she mumbled. “Complete holy service…keep vow…at the keep…” And she tottered off, deeper into the dusky, glowing swamp.