Mud clung to Lira’s shins, a grasping thickness that pawed at her like a clumsy lover. Leeches sucked at her ankles and calves, threatened to creep past the boundary of her torn leggings for every misstep that sent her splashing into the rank water. They pulsated against her thighs like seeking fingers, sending waves of revulsion into her guts.
Had it been a normal day, she would have stopped and took the time to pinch them from her skin with a bit of salt from her pouch, or to singe them with a burning twig. Instead, she did her best not to think of the hungry mouths with their serrated teeth, of the way they fattened themselves on her lifesblood.
She stumbled for a moment, plunged forward, and on instinct thrust her arms out to stop her fall. They crashed past green algae that clung to the surface like parasitic clouds in a black sky, her palms finding the silty bottom. Behind her, the sounds of pursuit continued, the barking of dogs echoing between cypress and black willow, the shouts of men spurring them on. Fear gripped her chest, and she pushed herself up, forced herself onward, pretended to not see the glistening bodies making a feast of her brown arms.
Something fat and black buzzed past her ear, lighting for a moment at her hairline. A pinch, and she felt a warm trickle of blood slip down the nape of her neck. The barking of dogs changed direction, and a flight of blue heron burst from the canopy just to the south of her in a cacophony of wing and call.
Lira took advantage of the distraction and charged toward a nearby stand of towering black willow, their drooping branches forming a curtain. Gnats swarmed in her vision at the sudden disturbance in the still waters, and something thick and scaly plunged into the water from a muddy bank, its tail cutting through the swamp and propelling it forward with terrifying speed. She caught a glimpse of yellowed eyes with slit pupils.
Again, the sound of braying dogs, closer, and Lira changed direction again, both the alligator and her pursuers driving her deeper into the swamp. She stumbled and splashed, sure the noise would draw more predators, but could find only fear in her breast, so she moved as fast as she dared.
The thick mud and slick silt made it a struggle to run. For a time, all Lira knew was burning in her legs, a stitch in her side, breath coming in ragged gasps. Those things in the swamp—frog and alligator and stinging insect—registered only on periphery of her growing fear. Each moment that passed, she was sure she could move no further, and somehow, she moved onward, one foot in front of the other, because stopping meant death.
The sun had moved higher in the sky by the time exhaustion and pain forced her to halt. She no longer heard the dogs or the men shouting. The heat of the swamp had reached its peak, and sweat beaded on her, the sour smell joining that of the dank stench of the waters on her skin.
She found herself on a small island, the hillocks that formed it covered with stunted grass. The footing was soft but held her weight. Reed and cattail surrounded the whole, black willow and cypress standing in a haphazard ring on the interior. Still moving forward, half-delirious and aching all over, she stumbled into that ring, thinking that if she could rest, maybe sleep for even a short while, she might regain her strength, maybe even find her way free and to the roads that led to the Free Cities.
She passed through a curtain of willow branches, the supple limbs leaving light scratches against her cheek. On the other side, a building stood, its stones covered in creeper and lichen, the whole half-tilted and nearly sunken in the soft soil. Tumble-down pillars dotted the bed of moss before it, like a carpeted plaza, and she stumbled toward the dark maw of its entrance. Here was shelter, her addled mind argued. Here was rest.
She paused only a moment at the doorway, her hand sinking into a patch of mushroom and lichen clinging to the stone. The small part of her that was still rational argued that she shun this place, that anything could be bedded down inside. She ignored it and stepped inside.
The interior was cool after the baking heat of the sun and the thick humidity of the day. It was more of the same inside, lichen and moss and creeper crawling up walls, carpeting the floor. What stone showed was carved in elaborate and enigmatic glyphs, and at the far end of the small room, a simple dais with a bowl stood. This was a temple, then. Long forgotten and unused, but surely consecrated to some god or another.
She staggered to the dais, and sank down. Her body had decided without her consent that this was where she would rest. For a moment, she thought she heard the dogs again, but could find no energy to care. This seemed as good a place as any. And should her blood spill here, perhaps the god of this place would take its price from those men. She closed her eyes and slept, exhaustion crashing into her like a black wave.
A dream borne of exhaustion rode the waters of sleep, and pooled around her mind like the sea licking at shoals. In it, she relived the last day. Pela was there, still smiling and whole. Lira had had to creep across the wide yard the Legate kept. She thanked Mother Moon for keeping Her face hidden, Lira’s bare feet soft and soundless on the manicured grass.
Lira reached Pela’s bunkhouse and eased the door open, careful not to let the wood bang into the side of the building, then slipped inside. Her lover lay half-covered by a threadbare sheet. The moon freed itself from the clouds, and Lira traced Pela’s form with her eyes in the dim light. Long legs and arms, strong wrists and ankles, slender fingers. High breasts, the nipples outlined against the fabric covering her. A slender neck and nose, heart-shaped face and full lips. Her brown skin glowed in the light of the moon, and Lira’s lust rose as she straddled Pela and leaned in, planting a kiss on her lips.
Pela’s eyes fluttered open, and Lira placed her mouth over the other woman’s, kissing her deeply, tongue seeking and tasting. For a moment, Pela threatened to resist, but then her hands came up and found the back of Lira’s head. Pela pulled her deeper into the kiss.
At last, they separated.
“Sneak,” Pela whispered, lips curving up in a smile.
“Harlot,” Lira winked back.
Pela laughed at their private joke, the sound throaty and musical in the near-silence. The Legate and his men would ever understand the deep mockery those words held for them, or the way the women wielded them like a personal talisman against the hurt of life.
The snap of a twig, and they both froze. The space of an indrawn breath, and the door was flung open, lantern light throwing the room into stark relief, casting looming shadows on the walls.
Lira screamed as rough hands entangled themselves in her hair, yanked her to her feet, dragged her from the bunkhouse. Men stood in a semicircle at the entrance, pale skin and harsh mouths set as Pela was pulled free as well, stark-naked. A detached part of Lira watched Pela’s skin goosepimple in the chill night air.
Her heart hammered as the men forced them to march to the pole in the center of the yard. They bound a weeping Pela to it with a leather thong about her wrists. The captain, his face all hard angles and rage wielded a whip.
“This is how you repay me?” Spittle sprayed from his mouth in his fury, flecked Pela’s back.
He stepped back, raised the whip.
“No!” Lira shouted, but the whip was already descending.
She heard the harsh crack, saw the end open the other woman’s back, the flesh parting like a ripped seam. Inside was pink meat and red blood, running from the wound as if it too meant to flee in fear. Pela screamed, tears flowing from those perfect brown eyes, spittle stretching between her lips like a spiderweb.
The whip came down again and Lira struggled, fought with her captors as another of Pela’s screams split the night air and sent the dogs barking in their kennels. One of the guards turned.
“Shut those thrice-damned dogs up!” He ordered someone in the dark.
Lira saw the opening, and running in instinct, pulled the knife from his belt. She’d only meant to threaten him with it. Instead, he turned and drove himself onto the blade with a grunt.
For a moment, the world froze. Then he collapsed, and the other guards had taken notice. They drew short blades, intending to spit her on them there, and without another thought, Lira bolted for the tree line at the edge of the property.
It was dark, and Mother Moon had hidden Her face again. Lira was still young, still strong from the backbreaking work the Legate demanded. She fled, outpacing her pursuers in moments, and entered the swamp. Somewhere along the way, the knife fell into those dark waters.
The cypress and willow and deep waters beckoned her, and she ran as far as she dared in the dark. And as she ran, the dark embraced her.
Lira woke with a start. Small black shapes littered the stone around her. It seemed the leeches had drunk their fill and now lay in a sated torpor. She ached from an abundance of cuts and scrapes and bites. Her muscles creaked with every movement. The dream had faded but left with it the guilt of leaving Pela behind, the pain of her own weakness.
Lira spent long moments staring about the temple, the glyphs there teasing thought and memory. Nothing here was familiar to her, and yet nothing here was utterly foreign. It reminded her somewhat of the temples her own people had worshipped at no so long ago. Gods various and sundry, small and great. A god for each season, a god for each reason.
Until the Empire had come with its bright shining God and declared theirs dead. Declared them savages in need of penance. She thought of the estates, and of the Legates assigned to the task. Call it what they wanted, but Lira knew her gods would never countenance slavery, no matter the guise.
Thinking on that led her back down the path of fear, and she forced her thoughts to still, listening intently to the world outside. The whisper of the wind through bulrushes. The gentle clatter of cattails against one another. The deep burp and creak of bullfrogs in the water, followed by the occasional gentle splash.
Harder, she thought, harder. Concentrate. She tuned those noises out. Heard the cry of a loon somewhere distant. And then, rhythmic, the splish-splash of booted feet in the water. The harsh breathing of the mastiffs. Her heart sped, her pulse throbbing beneath her jawline. She swallowed, and realized how thirsty she was, the action sending a prickle of dryness down her throat. They hadn’t given up the pursuit. But they were being quieter about it, which meant they either had some inkling of where she was, or they hoped to lull her into a sense of security.
Lira cast about the temple, looking for anything she might use as a weapon—a broken shard of bone, a sharp piece of rock. What she found was more moss and skeletons too small to bother with; toad and snake and sparrow.
She slapped the stone basin in frustration. A sharp edge, where the stone had become brittle and shattered, cut into her palm, and she watched as blood trickled down a groove in the side, dripping into the hole at its base.
A deep buzzing stirred up there, and she took a tentative step back, afraid she’d woken some slumbering nest of wasp or hornet. It went on for only a few seconds, then died again. Curiosity won over fear, and Lira stepped closer. Pinched her hand at the cut until fat drops of blood rolled from the wound. They hung from the base of her palm for a moment, then plunged downward.
The buzzing came again, clearer, and she paused to listen, the men outside forgotten for a moment.
We are the Frog, Reptile, Scorpion, Grasshopper, Ant, Snake.
From the depths of love.
If wish our aid,
Reply to Us.
The words unnerved her, sent a tremor through her guts that threatened to shake her bones. She stepped back, then forward. Admonished herself.
“If you flee from everything that frightens you, Lira, you will never find anything but the road and fear,” she said. Then, louder. “Yes, I would like your help, please.”
No answer came. Outside, the sound of water splashing had grown in volume, and she imagined the men, tall and strong, carrying bright steel, tromping and trampling down rushes and grass, single-minded in their purpose. She leaned over the basin and whispered.
“Help, I need your help.”
The buzzing replied, wordless and faint. Again, Lira cast about. Her gaze settled on the leeches littering the floor. She scooped them up in handfuls, pressed them against the stone of the bowl, her blood and theirs running in thick rivulets below. The buzzing grew stronger, the men outside louder. Shouts now, and the barking of dogs.
Desperate, Lira smashed more of the leeches, and when they were gone, opened both palms on the jagged edge. Blood flowed in a stream, the buzzing reaching a crescendo.
The dark of the temple was shattered by a man thrusting a lantern inside.
“I have her!” He shouted to his party.
It was his last shout as the floor erupted. Beetles the size of Lira’s thumb burst from the moss, scrabbled up his legs. In moments, they covered him like a carpet, and where they found flesh, they bored. The field of his flesh crawled like roving hills as they stripped him bare from the inside. He died drowning in his own blood.
Outside, more screams, the dogs yowling. Lira stepped over the soldier’s writhing body as curiosity seized her. The mastiffs had slipped their leashes, most already barreling through the swamp, away from the horror assaulting them.
Bones, long dead, enough to form an ossuary, had come to life. They were bound together with snake and millipede. Bright dragonflies perched in the eyesockets of skulls, and maggots formed their flesh. They pulled the living down, a crawling slithering horde of living unlife.
As the soldiers went down, new horrors awaited them. Frogs painted in bright iridescence forced their way between parted lips, whole colonies of ants chewed their way into men’s ear canals. The living did so only for so long, then they were subsumed, devoured from the inside. And as each died in twitching shuddering spasms, the swamp rose up to claim them. Clover burst from insect bites in green profusion. Where snake and spider had devoured their eyes, purple clusters of violets. Kudzu and ivy wrapped their bones.
And then, silence. It was over. Lira turned back to the temple, saw it sat a little straighter. A little taller. She stepped back inside. Something wearing the clothes of a man, but not yet a man, stood before the dais with its back turned. It ran a finger along the inside of the basin, lifted it to its lips.
“Sweet,” it said. “You will bring more,” it said, not waiting for confirmation from Lira.
She did not answer. She thought of Pela, of the raw pink of her open back against that perfect smooth black skin. Of the horrors of the Empire, the cruelty of the Legates. Lira nodded.
“So many more,” she whispered.
The thing in men’s clothing collapsed, scurrying away on a thousand spindly legs, and Lira busied herself with the beginnings of her task.