In the last two days, two friends have spoken to me about this story. Thank you. Thank you. Seriously.
We were slow. I could feel the tension in Prevot like the threat of rain and did my best to remember her hasty teachings from the day before, but as lost as I was in the forested areas of the mainland, I was infinitely more useless in this merciless hybrid of land and water. Only a few hours into our travel, I deeply believed I would never be comfortably dry again in my life. I could barely remember the hot, sunny days of my youth when all of the students would run to the ocean’s edge, shedding our clothing as we ran, and plunge into frigid waves only to emerge shivering and gleefully throw ourselves into the sand to bake like fresh an’andi.
Tiago did an admirable job for his age, holding his silence and obeying all directions without hesitation. I could hear Ele’s low but steady stream of curses behind us and Vana’s patient encouragement. Captain Dumas, too, kept her peace, but I knew her eyes were in constant motion, wary of snakes and worse.
The eternal twilight was no help – I couldn’t tell how long we had traveled, how long we had until true dark, which Prevot had warned us came quickly. I noted her frequent glances upward and back; once she met my eyes. I saw the mists of fear in them, but she immediately withdrew into her façade and gave me an empty wink.
She allowed us a rest after some hours, warned that it would be short, and disappeared ahead before anyone could argue or question her intentions. When she returned, she was red-faced and grim, but her confidence was a marked improvement. The rest of the day’s slow but harsh speed saw us safe inside another hollowed hill.
Wordlessly we built the fire, set out rations, stripped out of our wet clothes, ate, and slept.
Captain Dumas shook me gently awake and I sat up, gasping at the soreness in my body. My stomach and legs, hips and back were screaming from the abuse of the day before and I did my best to loosen and warm my muscles. We ate and Prevot led us out again before the sun had truly dared rise. It was barely light enough to see, but I knew we needed the extra time to reach out next stop safely.
As difficult as time was, I estimated it at about three hours into the day before Dumas let out a hissing curse and called Prevot to her side. They both bent over her hand and conferred in low voices. Prevot pulled a piece of hard bread from her bag and put it in her mouth, then sprinkled a small measure of something over Dumas’s wound. She pressed the softened bread over the salt and bound it with a thin strip of fabric.
We continued. I wanted to ask Dumas if she was all right, but I knew what her answer would be, and I didn’t have the strength to worry more than I already did. Dumas had the first injury, but not the last. I rolled an ankle, Tiago tripped and bruised his head on a tree, and Vana lost two fingernails after overbalancing and falling into the water, but no one, even she, was sure exactly how.
Around what I estimated to be halfway through the day, Prevot allowed a rest and again disappeared ahead. She was gone longer than the day before, but returned grim. “Ahead are untu’ik trees.”
I swallowed hard. She had instilled into all of us a fear of them, which she insisted was how the most experienced person responded. The trees were no bigger than any other, but covered in spines and toxins. During rain, the oils on the leaves and bark would drip onto those below and cause rashes and blisters and worse. The water around them was poisonous to drink. When they dropped fruit, like stones, the hard layer would rot and ferment until the seeds within, shaped like shards of glass, exploded outward with enough force to pierce through neighboring trees. A person’s body was no obstacle to them. Some animals, lizards and birds, could withstand the toxins, but most avoided them.
“They look young,” she explained. “I expect they’ve grown since I was away. To make it to our next landing, we cannot go around; I don’t know how far this new copse extends. We’ll eat and rest a bit longer.”
Tiago needed encouragement to eat. I could tell he was exhausted to his marrow; I felt the same and had an adult’s frame for the journey. He wiped a few subtle tears and asked, “How much longer will we be here?”
I rubbed his back. “One more sleep. After tomorrow’s full day we should near the edge of the swampland and Emeline will take us to the nearest river crossing. We’ll stop in that town and sleep for a week.”
“I miss mai-am,” he whispered.
I pulled his shoulder into my side and laid my cheek on his head. “I know. We’ll write to her as soon as we’re dry, and you can tell her about your harrowing experience. She never expected this to happen, Tiago. I certainly didn’t.”
Prevot pulled us close together. “We must slather our skin in mud.”
Ele let out a disgusted sound, but Vana was nodding. “The insects,” she said.
Prevot nodded. “The insects that tolerate the trees can spread the caustic oils. Mud is the best defense, but it must not dry. You will refresh it as we walk, and be thorough with your covering. Ears, necks, everything. If a creature does find purchase, you must not strike it like any other, but brush it away. If it is crushed on your skin, it will burn you.”
“How are these trees allowed to thrive?” Tiago asked desperately.
Prevot grimaced. “It’s mostly the poor who live near them. And it’s dangerous work to cut them down, dig out the roots; they are hard to burn, and if they do, the smoke…” she put out her hands. “Everyone now, use the lower layers of mud; nothing from the surface.”
We quickly did as she said, helping each other reach the more difficult spots, until we were covered to her satisfaction. She led us along and I felt shudders of fear pass through me to see the evil flora ahead and around us. Every sound made me twitch; what if it was an exploding seedpod? I realized that Prevot hadn’t said what to do in that situation, and then realized it was because it wouldn’t matter what we did. If it wasn’t a quick death, it would be a slow one.
We stayed as close together as we dared, eyes often on the ground. I put more mud on Tiago’s neck and felt Dumas do the same for me. Ele’s cursing grew louder and I heard her soft sobbing, but no one even considered a pause.
Dumas grabbed my shoulder in a bruising grip and pointed at the half-submerged seedpod I’d almost ruptured with a footfall. My stomach threatened to empty itself and I thanked her profusely before I could force myself to continue. A little ahead, Prevot helped Tiago over a fallen log. She met my eyes and gave a tentative smile. I returned it, hopeful that we were reaching the end of this toxic hell.
Behind her, I saw Tiago wince and slap a hand against his arm. His eyes grew wide and he failed to contain the shriek of pain that bubbled from his chest. Prevot spun and grabbed him, a hand dipping again into her satchel. I almost rushed to reach them, but forced myself to continue my steady, deliberate pace.
Prevot had something pressed to the injury, still moving, Tiago tucked under her arm. My heart raced and I looked down to gather more mud. I hesitated at the oily residue that shimmered like fool’s gold, the prize beneath tempting me, if only I was willing to poison myself to reach it.
As Vana passed over the fallen log, we heard a sound like stones boiling in water. “DOWN!” Prevot ordered. I threw myself to my knees, curled into as small a shape as I could without exposing my face to the water, as Prevot had taught. I heard sounds like hail and the air moved around me, but I didn’t dare raise my head.
I knew it was only a few minutes, but I was sure days were passing. Sweat poured down my cheeks and softened the drying mud on my face and in my hair. My eyes and lips stung with sweat. My nose itched furiously. I was sure things were crawling beneath my clothes and my muscles screamed to be released from their torment.
When the noise stopped I waited for Prevot’s order to rise.
I was raising my head already when I finally heard her say, “All right. It’s passed.”
There were flies buzzing in my legs and feet from how long I’d crouched and it worsened as I turned in a slow, ginger circle, and leaned to stretch my back. My mind felt of honey and it took me a moment to realize that Dumas was still on the ground. Ele came up from behind and put a hand on her. Dumas twitched and shuddered and as she rose, helped in no small part by Ele and Vana, I saw two points of blood on her shirt. I blinked and blinked again. Each time, the points grew larger.
I looked behind me, further down the trail, and saw Prevot. Her face was difficult to read under the mud, but the raincloud of tension she’d carried this whole time seemed to have released, and it left a slack, wilted thing in its place. I looked back at Dumas. She’d managed a couple of horribly slow, painful steps with Vana and Ele on either side, but when she met my eyes, she fell back to her knees, waving the other two women away. Vana shouldered the supplies Dumas carried.
They passed me wordlessly and I went to kneel beside her. She’d rolled to her back, oily water almost to her ears. Shallow panting was all she could manage to her lungs and I was sickened to try and relate this prone and filthy, tired person to the ever-competent and capable Captain of my personal guard, the first to swear fealty to me, who trusted me to rule and who promised her life to me without reservation.
Her eyes never left mine as she managed a shaky hand to her dagger hilt. With my heart in my throat, I drew the blade and lifted her head with a gentle hand. “Thank you,” I told her. I pressed my lips firmly to her forehead and pushed her blade through the back of her ear firmly and quickly. My whole body shuddered at the feeling, but I kept her pressed tight to me as she faded. Without guidance, my hands made the signs to ward away ghosts and send them to their final rest.
Numbness shrouded me and I didn’t remember anything from the rest of the way. Sounds were muffled, my sight seemed dim and slow. When we stopped, it took me time to realize that Prevot was upset and then longer to realize it was because our resting place was unmaintained. Water was two inches deep on the floor, no supplies or firewood were waiting for our use and the walls promised to collapse at any time.
“Abandoned. It’s too near the untu’ik trees,” she said. We all knew, but it still hurt to hear. My mind was slowly clearing and I could see her desperation. I imagined her people had another place to replace this one, but she didn’t know where. She looked at me and away quickly. I imagined she was considering leaving us and most of me didn’t blame her. She could move far faster alone and could likely find safety before dark, or even travel in the darkness if she needed to. But as a guide, she was hobbled.
“Do what you must, Prevot,” I said softly.
Her gaze snapped back to mine, searching for meaning behind my words. I had none. I was too tired for games.
A large snake dropped from a tree above and fell to the ground between us. Faster than sparks, Ele had a grip on the end of its tail. “NO, sir!” she snarled as she swung it overhead and cracked it like a whip. Tiago’s eyes were enormous, and I imagined mine were the same. Ele handed the limp creature to Prevot. “That will help sustain us for the night’s walk, I expect.”
“Where did you learn that?” Prevot asked with an impressed expression.
Ele spat mud into the water beside her. “Seemed like it might work. I don’t know much about snakes.”
Our guide pulled out her knife and carved off edible pieces. We were too hungry to hesitate and I was surprised at the different, but ultimately tolerable, taste and texture. When the shake was reduced to bones and skin on the ground (she put the head in her satchel), Prevot said, “We’ll continue. At any dry ground, we’ll rest. Stay even closer, within touch, and answer when I speak your name.”
I looked down at my hand. I could still feel what I’d done, though there was no visible trace of it. I jumped when Tiago took my palm in his with a child’s unthinking innocence, but I squeezed his grip reassuringly and we pushed ourselves to continue even as the night overtook us.
June 22, 2021