“So it was definitely a person?”
Miter nodded, pausing to scan the terrain. “Yes, maybe wearing leather boots; they’re not dressed for the swamp.”
Gove tapped her clogs together. “Rusk gave me these; I didn’t really get it till now.”
“She gave me my first pair, as well.”
Gove patiently kept behind him as Miter tested damp ground with his walking staff.
“You’re not from here either?”
He shook his head. “I’m from the coast.”
Gove paused in case he wanted to elaborate further, but he wasn’t forthcoming. “How, um, how long have you been here?”
“More than five years now—” Miter froze for a moment, and she held her breath— “I can hear them.”
Gove shifted her grip on her axe and tried to step as quietly as she could; the ground was wet and sucking at her feet.
Miter led them in a careful circle around their target, until they came up against deeper water. It was pooled up against the base of a cliff, where it had killed off scores of huge old trees; their half—submerged corpses were covered in slime and moss.
“Step where I step.”
Gove nearly fell off the tree trunk she was creeping along when she saw him.
“It IS a guard!”
He was hunched over weirdly, up to his knees in the water, and he had most of a peccary under his arm. But there was no mistaking the red tunic and blackened armor. He heard her, and when he spun around, Miter froze as well. Gove heard him gasp, and then in a tone of forced friendliness, he called;
“Mabek? What are you doing here?”
Then the guard — Mabek — dropped the peccary corpse and leaned forward unnaturally and made an awful, gutteral, nasal roar — and then pulled himself up onto a sprouting fallen willow trunk and lumbered towards them much too quickly.
Gove had played a similar moment out in her mind many times, and without thinking about it, she pushed Miter out of the way and threw her ax.
The strange guard had just leapt onto a huge fallen cedar when the ax hit him. It stuck in his neck as he fell backwards with a grunt — and his weight pushed him through the bark into the soggy rotten core.
Gove froze. She hadn’t meant — it wasn’t supposed to actually kill him — and she could just see the remains of his face where it emerged from within the rotten wood, a horrible rip running from nose to ear. She fell to her knees on the slime—covered boulder and buried her face in her hands and screamed.