As soon as the reflection of dawn showed, Captain Matyas lifted the anchors and allowed the ship to drift carefully eastward, although shore was no more than a hint of darker darkness against the farthest horizon. Finally he pointed to a change in the wave pattern. “I daren’t go further. Those are the Grinders… with the tide flowing, less than two meters below the surface.”
The longboat was hauled from its resting place in the waist, and lifted to fix it on an apparatus that hung it over the side of the rail. With half a dozen of the strongest rowers among the crew, we clambered into it and were lowered to the water. Leifara and I took our turns at the oars, spelling rowers as we followed the waves toward the distant shore.
About halfway there, the man in charge of the rowers handed me a signal mirror. If none of the marsh folk could see it, it would be a long and dangerous passage through the maze of twisting channels. Marsh predators are aggressive and deadly.
I took a rowing bench when we reached the Grinders, so that the crewman in charge of the longboat could lean out, over the prow, and call directions to the steersmen. The boat checked, repeatedly, and zigged and zagged amongst row after row of what looked like submerged, needle-sharp mountain tops. The further we went, the more the waves subsided, until by the time we had passed the last ridge, we rowed across a surface like a lake on a calm day. It was hot, too. The rowers were all sweating freely. The Lady called for a halt, and we passed waterskins around.
A rower who had been watching the dark smudges of marsh in the distance started. “There—a flash, I think!”
I glanced up at the degree of the sun. We would need two mirrors to return the signal, now, but with a little angling it was easily done. Anxiously, we scanned the direction the rower had indicated. Finally—more flashes. The crewman nodded. “They will send a guide.” I heaved a sigh of relief. I hadn’t relished the thought of trying to make our way through those fetid, tangled weeds harboring a dozen kinds of death at every turn.
The promised guide was two women, almost naked and smeared with a bizarre pattern of pigments. One had her head shaved and was slung with collectors’ bags, the other wore her long dark hair in marshlocks and had an elaborate neck-collar of claws and teeth. Its center point reached halfway down her breast. They both emerged from a tangle of graysedge and stood silently awaiting the boat.
The crewman standing at the front of the boat gestured for the rowers to stop, and hailed them in Southspeech. There was some rapid back-and-forthing—I don’t have any of the Marshtongue, there were few even in the College of Arms who spoke it—and finally the one with the collecting bags made a gesture.
The crewman turned to us. “We can approach, now. When we are close enough, they will examine us and determine whether they will conduct us to the dry.”
We rowed slowly in. The two women watched, warily. Their appearance was strange, even eerie, although I know that the substances they anoint their bodies with are entirely practical in function—protective coatings against certain types of water parasites, scent-deadening chemicals to make them invisible to some predators, camouflage to reduce their visibility to sight hunters, and other uses. Still, it had the effect of making them look a little inhuman, or like a cross between humans and some marsh creature.
When the prow of our boat was less than a meter from the swaying tips of the young grayreeds, the collector held up her hand, and we stopped the boat. We sat in silence as they looked us over, then the collector leaned closer to the boat and sniffed, several times, smelling us as an animal might. She looked us over, then spoke in the common tongue: “You would go to the dry?”
The Lady answered, in Southspeech. The two women’s eyes widened, and the hunter leaned over, hand cupped, and lifted some of the clear brownish water from among the reeds where they stood. She offered it to the Lady, her eyes wide.
The Lady held out both of her hands to receive the water, then lifted them with a swift, ritualistic gesture to let the water fall on her head and shoulders. She spoke again, and both of the marsh women bowed. The collector gestured, pointing to the open channel, and the two women set off. We followed with only two oars and the steersman—there was barely enough width in the channel to row.
They led us through a shifting maze of channels that sometimes doubled back on themselves, splitting and rejoining and turning this way and that—no one but a marshlander could have found that path. The sun was mostly behind us, but again we turned north, south, sometimes even back on our track into the sun for a time. Now and again we would have to ship the oars, and the collector would slip into the water and tow the boat with a rope, thrown to her by the crewman in front.
We stopped occasionally, for no reason I could discern, and twice the hunter raised an odd, animal- or bird-like cry, which was answered from a distance. We proceeded in silence. When Leifara murmured something to the Lady, the collector turned to her and made an emphatic gesture for silence. Around us, the wind kept up a constant low song in the tangles of marsh growth, underlaid with a slow lapping of water.
Once, the wind dropped, and the collector put out a hand to halt the boat, gesturing with the other for silence. She and the hunter both froze, unmoving as stone, and we tried to do likewise. The silence stretched until our ears, accustomed, began to register the small noises of the marsh—insect song, the rustling of vegetation agitated by the passage of creatures under water or on the surface, the cry of a distant bird. We held that stillness, that silence, for what seemed like a lifetime, until there was a sudden explosion of sound beyond us and to the right among the sedges: A hellish, predatory-sounding cry and a desperate splashing, unbelievably loud.
Some of us started, I know I was among them—I could not help it, the sound was so unexpected. A shadow arose where the sound had been: A nofra, spreading its huge vanes in an attempt to catch and engulf the warm-blooded noisemakers it had sensed in its hunting grounds.
How big is a nofra? I am not familiar with all the varieties; I know some are larger than others. This one was big enough—larger than the mainsail of our ship, it loomed, extended to the point of being semi-translucent, undulating slightly in the still air, seeking a breeze or air current that it could use to waft itself in our direction. It was distant enough, I thought, that it could not engulf us simply by folding over. The hunter’s fingers were working in a pouch that hung at her hip, the motion silent, small enough not to raise betraying air currents.
Even a very huge nofra could not engulf us all—their normal prey is the hyarthem, a big creature of the themfi order, larger than a human, but not by much. But the speed at which those vanes could contract, engulfing the victim and constricting with incredible force, could reduce its prey to a digestible jelly in perhaps fifty heartbeats. They wouldn’t actually eat humans, but by the time they determined that their catch was inedible it was too late for the human in question.
The reed tops rippled—the wind was returning. Now, while the creature was angling its vanes, trying to catch the moving air at an angle that would allow it to lift, the hunter moved with incredible speed, lifting something to her lips and blowing with astonishing force. A fine jet of particles burst from the end of the tube, catching the leading edge of the nofra’s vane.
With a high shrieking keen, it collapsed, shrinking, folding, contracting its vanes; disappearing among the vegetation. I was not the only one to draw a shaky sigh of relief. The Lady murmured something very quietly, and the collector glanced at her, and nodded. The air was alive with windsong again, and we continued on.
Eventually we reached a place where the marsh women instructed us to leave the boat—there were no channels remaining wide enough for its passage. We sorted ourselves into a single file, the hunter at the front, the collector at the tail, and stepped very carefully indeed, following routes as tortuous as the boat channels had been, and even more difficult to discern. Once a crewman stepped unwarily, and sank up to the knee in slimy water, drawing an angry look from the marsh women and condemning us to another long period of stonestruck silence, with the reddening glow of sunset painting the vegetation around us.
It was twilight, with night on the horizon, when we reached “the dry.” The transition was so gradual as to be almost undetectable, but finally we strode on firm ground, among more grasses than sedge and reeds, and a discernable foot trail among them. The marsh women would have left us, then, but after another short conversation with the Lady, they consented to accompany us, although they were plainly ill-at-ease when we reached a road, packed stone and sand. They kept looking about, warily. The predators in the dry were not their predators, they plainly had little trust in the crewmen and myself, although we were all armed.
Along one side of the road, rock cairns appeared at regular intervals, perhaps fifty meters apart. As full dark descended, phosphorescent lichens on these began to glow softly, guiding us until palanahr rose greenly over the flat horizon to our left. It was near the full, and bright enough to pale the lichen-glow and keep us to the road. It had risen a quarter of the sky when a figure appeared on the road before us.
“Who travels Lyrin?” came the challenge, mildly.
I answered for us: “Ilvren, Adept of the College of Arms, in the service of Veran. Who challenges the servant of Veran?”
“Narneth of Lyrin, in service to the Chancel.”
“Then we are well met, for we are bound for the Chancel, Narneth of Lyrin.”
It was only a short trek further, the road curved inland again, around a ridge of upthrust rock, and beyond we could see the lights and bulk of the Chancel against the dark eastern horizon. When we passed through the outer gate, into the light of the globes set on high posts at the entrance to the inner Chancel, we could see the porter plainly, and the porter could see us.
His eyes narrowed as they perceived the marsh women, standing close together a little apart from the rest of us, and then widened again when they rested on the Lady’s face. He bowed. “Lyrin is honored beyond words, Lady.”
She nodded. “You honor me. We are in haste, Wandan. Is Lennari awake still?”
He nodded. “I will conduct you to him.” He glanced at us, at the marsh women. “Um… all of you, Lady?”
She sensed his disapproval of the marsh women, and her own disapproval answered it. “My daughters Inri and Olani, Wandan. Without their guidance we might have perished in the marshes, yes, even me.”
“You… you came from the gulf?” The porter’s astonishment at hearing the Lady speak so of the marshfolk was compounded with amazement at our passage. He bowed to the marsh women. “My pardon, marsh sisters, for discourtesy. I stand in your debt. Lyrin Chancel stands in your debt.”
The collector nodded, gravely. “Debt is taken, pardon is given, dryman.”
The next morning, after we had (thanks be!) bathed, eaten, slept in beds, and eaten again, we assembled in the inmost courtyard of the Chancel, by the young k’blad tree that had been once a limb of the Great Tree itself, in Aurora Chancel’s courtyard. Lennari, Canon of the Chancel, held a length of loose-woven dennicloth, undyed and unmarked. Another Elder of the Chancel held a cushion before him, bearing a very sharp knife. Leifara carried her own yat-akkan in a scabbard by her side, and a sharp, short-handled shearing tool.
The Lady was very pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. I don’t know if she had slept. She had dismissed us to the care of Adepts of the Cloister, with orders to sleep, but when we retired, she was still closeted with Lennari. She shook her head, and looked at the Canon. “Eldest, there is no tradition for this, thank the Power, and I wish none to arise. But what I purpose here is a very deep and perilous matter, and there would be no harm, I think, in a moment of prayer for those believers among us.”
We bowed our heads, all of us, I think, though I did not look. I am not, myself, a believer, but there is no hypocrisy in showing respect for the beliefs of others. I misspeak. I believe, in my fashion, that there are powers greater than humanity, unsearchable and vast, and perhaps they have something to do with the existence of this universe of matter and energy that we know. But who can say? And whether they concern themselves with the small affairs of humankind—well, there I doubt, in truth. But that is my own feeling, based on my own experience, and I would speak for—or against—no others.
After a silence, heavy with a growing tension, the Lady raised her head, and nodded to Leifara, who stepped forward, and approached the tree. She laid her hand on its bole, and whispered the invocation of the Foresters. With the edge of the shearing tool, she cut her finger, and bent, allowing the blood to drop on an exposed root. Then she stepped back.
The habit of the k’blad tree’s growth is thus: In its youth, its lower branches run long and straight and slender out from the bole in an upward-spiraling pattern. The lowest ones grow very long, eventually bending to touch the ground and root, so that an old k’blad is not one tree, but many, unless a Forester shape it otherwise. The upper branches are shorter, and stouter, but branching more profusely, in contrast to the lower branches’ straight, slender run. Wood from the k’blad tree lives for a very long time, even severed from the parent trunk. If the cut end is buried in earth, the wood will throw leaves, and even shoots, and eventually root itself.
Leifara approached one of the lower branches, and with a quick, hard stroke of the shearing tool, lopped it from the bole, leaving a short collar and a clean cut. She held the branch—now the standard of Veran Banner—in her left hand, and bowed thanks to the tree.
Then Lennari and the other Elder approached the Lady, with the length of cloth and the knife. The Elder murmured something to her, and she nodded, and held out her left arm. The Elder tied a ligature around it, above the elbow, and the Lady picked up the knife. Carefully, she made a small cut—some blood welled, but not much. She stood, holding the wrist upward, blood oozing sluggishly, while the Canon and the Elder unfolded the cloth and spread it, holding it in front of her.
Then she nodded, and with a quick gesture, released the ligature, so that the blood flowed freely, pooling on her wrist and hand, and beginning to drip to the ground. She appeared to set her teeth, and then lifted her arm in a gesture that splattered her blood upon the cloth, making the blood-banner of Veran. She did this three times, then let her arm drop, staring with eyes like stones at the bloody pattern she had made.
The Elder moved forward quickly, and lifted her hand, nodding to an Adept standing nearby. Together, they wiped her arm and hand, and applied a poultice of timik to the cut, binding it.
Leifara, meanwhile, had stripped the shoots from the standard, saving the largest. Now she took the cloth, and with a stout twist of denni, bound it in a long, spiraling stitch to the shoot, and with a thong of tanned talgar hide, bound that in turn to the standard. Then, holding the standard carefully parallel to the ground, she turned to the Lady, and went down on one knee, offering it to her.
And the Lady took the still-damp banner, and raised the standard. The bloody cloth hung unmoving; there was no wind to stir it.
We all dropped to one knee, and then the Lady spoke.
“I, Kuinyvara, fifty-ninth Lady of Veran, raise this banner of blood against the enemies of Veran. Let there be no peace until it is laid down!”