From the author: This was one of my first professional short story sales and a delight to write. Ideas for horrible things that might lay in wait for anyone foolish enough to cross a swamp just kept popping into my head. And of course, who could resist putting an iconic tale into a new setting?
Sevens. Damn! Dov stared at the dice and pushed Rion’s shoulder aside, as if a closer look could change the result. The mage’s teeth glinted in the shadow of his purple hood as he swept in the wager pile, and she saw her flame-opal disappear under his hand. The watching inn-rabble grew noisy in disapproval; mages were not popular in these parts.
“It isn’t possible,” Rion groaned. “He must have cheated.”
“He didn’t and you know it,” snapped Dov, tossing a mop of lanky ginger hair back from her eyes. “Oh, how could I have let you talk me into this? You’re always taking ridiculous chances and now you’ve lost my opal! Why did I ever listen to you?”
“It was your idea as much as mine. An easy mark, you said. I was ready to go home an hour ago, but you insisted we stay for one more throw. Just one more throw as long as our luck held.” His dark eyes glittered in the inn’s smoky light.
Dov jumped to her feet. He was right, of course, but that did not change anything.
Rion relented. “Love, I’m sorry. I know how much your mother’s opal means to you, and I wouldn’t have– There’s nothing I can do about it now. It’s done with, over.”
“There’re a few other things that are over and done with.” She turned toward the inn door and the crowd drew back from her in sympathy.
“In the interest of domestic felicity,” the mage said in his precise, dry voice. “Perhaps we could continue the game…” He moved his hand and the flame-opal sat alone on the rude wood table, shimmering crimson and gold.
Dov halted, keeping her eyes from Rion’s stricken face. She had not anticipated arousing the mage’s interest, but there might be some advantage for her in it. As long as she could keep him talking, she had a chance of maneuvering him into a bargain. He was not mortal, but that should make no difference. She sat down again.
“I suppose we could, if you made it interesting enough.”
“Dov,” Rion hissed, “we’ve nothing more –” She silenced him, still keeping her eyes on the mage.
“Games of chance do not interest you?” asked the sorcerer.
“Not nearly so much as contests of skill.”
“For instance,” she leaned forward, resting on her elbows and studying the soot-grimed ceiling, “you’ve been boasting there are some things mortals just can’t do. If you made it worth my while…”
“Are you proposing to turn lead into gold?” The dry voice reeked with amusement.
Dov shrugged. “Do I challenge you to shape honest iron, which you dare not touch lest you lose your arcane talent? No, I had in mind something I could do without the aid of magic.”
“Then it’s hardly worth the betting –”
“How about crossing the Turgian Marshes in a single day?” Dov raised her voice to make sure the inn-rabble could hear and witness her.
The mage’s spine straightened perceptibly. “You can’t do it. No mortal can.”
“I will – for my opal and ten pieces of gold.”
“Don’t do it,” Rion sputtered. “No stone is worth the risk. You’ll never make it alive. Don’t you know the horrors that lurk in the swamp?”
“Of course I do, the same as you. Whip-plants, werefoxes, quicksand, vampire trees. Isn’t that so?” she demanded of the mage.
“A crude approximation. The vampire are mythical and you omitted mention of the trap-spiders.”
Dov blanched. She hated spiders and had blissfully forgotten them.
“You see how impossible it is,” said the mage.
“These good folk heard my offer and they heard you say I couldn’t do it,” Dov replied. “Will they also hear you back down before a mere mortal?”
Slowly the mage shook his head. “If you survive and meet the time deadline, the opal is yours…and the gold.”
Dawn filtered wan and yellow through the straggler trees bordering the Turgian Marshes as Dov adjusted the laces of her running boots and checked her knife in its hidden sheath. Rion shifted from one foot to the other, holding his tongue with visible effort.
“It isn’t as if I’d never been in the Marshes before,” she continued. “When I ran messages for Old Hammach over in Deever, I used to cut through them all the time. Most of the horribles aren’t nearly so bad as their reps.” She straightened up, shrugged her leather jerkin into a more comfortable position, and began a final inspection of her belt pouches.
“Listen, Dove –”
“Listen, yourself. I may have gotten out of condition since I took up with you and your crazy trading schemes, but I can still out run anything in the swamps. Why do you think they call them swamp crawlers? Not, I assure you, for their fleetness of foot. Besides, I know a trick or two.”
“That’s just the problem. You can’t fool a swamp crawler the way you can a human mark. You think you’re pulling one on that mage, cut he’s the one who has you, not the other way around.”
As if conjured by his words, the mage, robed as before in dusted purple, came striding over the grasses. The voice that issued from the darkened hood was brittle like aged parchment.
“Human, you are either foolhardy or extraordinary, possibly both. I will await you at sundown on the other side of the Marshes. Whether you arrive is another matter entirely.” Then he vanished in the usual puff of smoke.
“Dov, it’s only a game to him,” Rion insisted. “He probably cheated us out of your opal just to force you into this ridiculous wager. It’s not worth your life.”
“This makes it all the better. Remember when you brought ice to Verbourg just because Rainold said it was impossible? The five bags of gold were nice, but you would have done it anyway.”
“I didn’t risk being eaten by a werefox!”
Dov laughed. “Rion, I promise you that if anything out there eats me, it won’t be a werefox. One couldn’t catch me if it tried.” She leapt lightly across the borders of the swamp and called back, “They haven’t any feet!”
Dov made good time through the morning, keeping to the threadwork of game trails that laced the Marshes. She had no difficulty avoiding the patches of quicksand with their coats of light earth and certain, sucking death. The sun rose higher, pale through thickening clouds. Desolate though the swamp might appear, it teemed with subtle, carnivorous life, no place for the unwary.
She glimpsed a werefox curled near some brierbushes. Its whimpering, pitched to lure a predator to its end, aroused her pity at first. It looked exactly like a small wounded animal as it regarded her with bright, pleading eyes, its poison sucker-pads carefully hidden beneath furry sides. She laughed at its pretentious vulnerability and went on her way.
The whip-plants were another matter. She had just finished eating her midday meal, sitting on a patch of salt-grass and congratulating herself on the excellent time she had made. Descending from the hummock, her ankle turned on the slippery grass, and she stumbled into a tangle of branches. It took her a moment to realize the grip on her arms and hair was not accidental. By then she was firmly held.
Dov lashed out at the bramble with a booted food.
“You idiot plant, let go of me!” The pliant vines curled around her, tough and resilient, well beyond her strength to break. She felt a slight, irresistible pull toward the central trunk.
“Of all the stupid –” she gasped. Just when things were going so well, to be eaten by a plant!
She twisted against the branches, feeling them yield and then tighten. They lifted her slightly and her boots slipped on the dry earth, her traction broken. Glancing toward the trunk, she saw a pulsating bulge appear in the dark brown bark. A slit of serrated pink appeared and dilated, puckering avidly.
Realizing that she had to act quickly, Dov raised her right knee to pull her knife from its sheath. The plant took advantage of her movement to draw her in closer, and she lunged at it, breaking its hold. It was designed to keep creatures from pulling away, not rushing toward it.
Screaming, Dov plunged her knife into the reddish heart of the whip-plant. Its branches lashed out with sudden, wringing violence, and tendrils fell from her as it rent the air with whistling wails. She scrambled to her feet, stunned at her luck. Resistance was what the plant was prepared for, and she had saved her life with outright attack.
Still gripping the hilt of her knife, Dov ran until her breath came in painful rasps and she could no longer hear the plant’s torment. She hunched over, sides burning and heaving, staying on her feet despite the trembling in her thighs. Gradually her breathing quieted. She inspected her blade, finding no trace of the plant’s sap on the metal, but she wiped it carefully on a patch of herbweed before putting it away.
From then on she went more carefully, her spirits somber. The cloud cover kept off the heat, and later it began to grow chilly. Dov again moved vigorously, jog-and-run as she had been taught, and the exercise kept her warm. She began to think that she might win the wager after all, if only to avoid spending the night in the Marshes. It would be a long tiem before she scoffed at their dangers again.
She did not see the earth-colored plasmoid lying in its rough trench until it was too late and she went slithering down the unnaturally slick slope. Whomp! The bottom ground me her with a tooth-jarring shock. The bars of the trap closed silently around her right thigh.
Dov pushed herself to her elbows, ears ringing with the impact of her fall. It was uncomfortably reminiscent of the time Rion had challenged her to cross the Whelan ice-Lake (source of the ice they had shipped to Verbourg) and she had cracked two ribs falling on its uncompromising surface.
Her hip stung where she had landed on it, but the plasmoid trap held her so tightly she could not roll to ease the pain. She managed a sitting position, looking around her, and realized with horror where she was.
For the first time, Dov began to think Rion was right, that she had been risking her life foolishly. This was not her idea of a fitting end, dying alone in a trap-spider’s den. She thought she was getting the better of the mage by counting on luck and her meager experience, amplified by boundless self-confidence. But she could not bargain her way out of this trap.
A roll of thunder sent her eyes heavenward. All this, and a brewing storm, too! she thought in disgust. The shallow pit in which she lay would give her scant protection against wind and rain.
Dov choked down a sob of anger, as much at herself as at the semi-living trap, and thrust her fingers at it. The plasmoid felt soft under her push, but its coarse suction-surfaces gripped her leather breeches still tighter. If she could slip something beneath it, she might be able to loosen its hold, but she had no lubricant to ease the process, nor could she reach the knife hidden in the boot top of her trapped leg.
Thunder again. “Oh, shut up!” Dov cried, her fingertips as well as her temper beginning to fray. “If you can’t help, then keep your blasted nose out of it!”
“What’s that you say?” rumbled a voice from above.
She squinted upward. “You didn’t say that.”
“Oh, but I did, small one. Haven’t you heard of Kronk, the great and glorious Storm God?”
“Storm God, huh? I don’t suppose you could get me out of this accursed thing before its owner comes to collect me?” Trap-spiders, according to those few who had lived to tell about them, were ten-legged, the size of a mastiff, and carnivorous.
“Ha!” clapped the thunder. “As if you were big enough for me to bother with.”
Dov narrowed her lips to hide a smile. After Rion and the mage, how difficult could it be to manage a mere weather deity? “Of course,” she agreed. “I’m only an undersized mortal, scarcely worth noticing. But then you aren’t a real Storm God.”
Thunder boomed across the sky, darkening as clouds massed to hide the sun. “Not a real Storm God? I’ll show you who’s real!”
Dov waited until the racket died down and her voice could be heard. “I’m only a powerless human, ignorant of the dealings of the mighty. But I’ve always understood that read gods do things like crack mountains and move oceans. You couldn’t even move a small thing like me.”
“Move you? A piddling little lump of flesh like you? I’ve swept whole armies away! Easiest thing in the world.”
Wind hit her without prelude, bringing blood to her cheeks. The plasmoid, however, was securely anchored to the bottom of the pit, and even Kronk’s single-minded blasting could not budge it. Finally the gale died down enough for her to shout, “O great Kronk, now I believe in your power. It is not for the likes of me to challenge the gods. Punish me for my impudence in any way you like – blast me, thunder upon me –”
The first few raindrops hit her like pellets. Then more fell, plummeting to sting her face and arms, but they were not enough to soak her leather breeches into slipperiness. Water began to drip from her nose.
Dov threw her head back. “O mighty Kronk, do anything to me you wish, but please not that! Anything but getting me wet!”
“Wet? I’ll show you wet!”
Rain came down in sheets, quickly soaking her. Dov held her hands out, cupping them to splash her trapped thigh. The thin leather slid a little under the softening plasmoid.
The pit began to fill with water, and Dov’s fingers slipped beneath the bars of the trap.
Only a few more seconds now…
Half-floating, she braced herself against the pit wall and looked up to see the trap-spider looming black and hairy, clacking its mandibles above her head.
Terror shook her. She’d played her gambit, relying on the pride and stupidity as well as the raw power of Kronk – and lost. Her death towered above her, insectile and odorous.
“Curse you, Kronk, you old rain-bucket!” she shrieked. “You’re nothing but a weakling charlatan! You haven’t moved me yet!”
The answering torrent lifted her on a swelling wave, and Dove gave a last thrust to slip the trap from her leg. She held her breath and curled beneath the water, reaching for her boot knife. The water carried her to the edge of the pit just as the spider leapt down and began to wade toward her.
As Dov struggled upright, the monster slipped on the slick mud, going down in a windmill of frantic legs. She hesitated for a moment before realizing that even if she could scramble out of the pit, the spider would soon be on its feet and after her. No escape lay in that route. She’d have to deal with it directly, just as she had the whip-plant.
Dov forced her way closer despite the stench of a thoroughly drenched creature of unclean living habits. Its wet, globular body gleamed like an obscene pearl encrusted with tortuous red veins. One hairy leg struck her below the diaphragm. She gasped, spitting bile, but she grabbed the foul limb with her free hand and kept her eyes on her target.
The trap-spider, as if guessing her intent, redoubled its thrashing. It lashed out at her with its poisoned fangs, straining to reach her. Dov twisted in even nearer and plunged her blade into its exposed abdomen. A quick jerk through the tender, unprotected vitals, and the giant arachnid lay twitching, the rain already washing its blood from her blade. She stood there trembling, scarcely able to believe how easily the creature had been killed.
Long moments later, Dov replaced her knife and wiped tears of relief mixed with rainwater from her face. She began to consider the benefits of a judiciously orchestrated weather deity cult. But first, a small test…
“O worthy Storm God! O great Kronk! Hear the words of this small mortal! You would be truly mighty upon the earth, but for one small failing. Your devoted worshipers will be terribly tired of being wet all the time. It’s a pity you’re powerless to stop what you start.”
Rainbows hailed her as she ran laughing on her way to reclaim her fire-opal.
This story originally appeared in Sword and Sorceress IV.