Summer was at its peak. The muskoxen were sleepy and languid for most of the day, tails slapping at flies as they jostled for room in the shade of the maples.
Miter had spent much of the past month jumping at every sound from the swamp, but even his fear was subdued by the heat. No further impossible, horrific creatures had crawled out from the underbrush. And though he checked daily for tracks, no strangers — human or otherwise — had passed by his home or harassed his herd. The most notable thing was signs of a wolfpack moving through; nothing unusual.
Up on the edge of the swamp, Miter had very few close neighbours, but he had made sure to check on Gove every few days. She had been deeply shaken after losing her ax, and hadn’t left sight of her home since. Summer was a hard time for someone new to the swamp, though — and after seeing her making all the same mistakes he had five years earlier, Miter brought her some of Rusk’s best fly repellant and taught her how to quickly weave wide—brimmed hats from the reeds in the creek behind her peccary pen.
Today, though, he wanted her to come with him down to the river for the market; it was that or he was going to have to start feeding her from his own stores.
Gove was not impressed with his suggestion.
She was standing ankle deep in the creek, peccaries lying around her half-submerged in the heat. Miter lowered himself onto a boulder and put his baskets down.
“You want to tell me why you’re hiding out here?”
Gove stared at him and huffed. “You were there, Miter.”
“In the swamp?” Miter hadn’t talked with her about this yet — he still wasn’t sure it was the right choice, but…
“When I —” Gove paused and then walked up to him and spoke in a much lower voice; “—when I killed that guard.”
Miter laughed before he could stop himself — and Gove pulled back, face pulling into a frustrated scowl.
“What, you think it’s funny?”
“No, Gove, it wasn’t —”
“Is that something you do a lot of up here?” She stepped back towards her herd. “Do they just brush it off?”
“Gove, that wasn’t a guard.”
“I’m not going to town.” She turned and picked up her crook. “I figure you can’t turn me in without getting caught up in it too, why bring anyone else into it.”
“That wasn’t a guard! No one’s turning anyone in.” Miter shook his head. “You can’t really think you killed a person.”
Gove turned and stared.
“You knew his name! You called him Mabek. Don’t fuck with me, Miter.” She was holding her crook like a fighting staff, and Miter was reminded of how accurate she’d been with her ax.
“Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“Don’t change the subject! You knew him.”
Around them the cicadas sang as Miter weighed his options.
“Alright, yes, I thought it was a guard at first; a guard I knew, named Mabek.” He passed a hand over his face. “But it wasn’t.” Gove squinted at him, confused. “It wasn’t a person at all, Gove. I saw it up close — and it was a…” What word would begin to explain? “..it was a monster.”
Gove stood for a moment with her eyebrows raised so high they disappeared under her hat.
“You’re the one who threw the ax;” Miter spread his hands. “You knew it wasn’t natural.”
The young woman looked like she was very carefully swallowing her words for a moment, staring at him with an unreadable gaze.
“Miter; no matter why I threw that ax, that wasn’t a … monster. There aren’t monsters.”
He sighed. “You don’t remember.”
Gove walked up to him.
“I don’t know if you’re trying to comfort yourself, or me, but I definitely killed a guard and I am prepared to hide here in the woods until I can move again.” She rolled her eyes. “I’m definitely not going down to market to make small talk with all your other local guards.”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Miter stood up in frustration. “There aren’t local guards. We don’t have town guards. There’s only the north circuit, and if they come here at all, they come through in winter.” Gove tilted her head at this. “Right now they should be up on the ice.”
She stepped back as she digested this, and absent—mindedly picked at the loosening brim of her hat.
“So,” she said slowly; “he must have left the circuit weeks earlier.”
“A month, probably.”
“So they wouldn’t know where he was.”
“I’m sure they don’t know what happened to him.”
Miter bit his tongue as she seemed to roll that information around in her mouth for a moment.
“So there’s no reason anyone else would know about what happened?”
“No one here would ever even imagine it.”
Gove turned and looked at her herd. “I guess, then, it might be safe to go…”
Miter exhaled through his nose. “I agree.” He picked up his walking staff and his baskets. “And you are definitely going to regret it if you don’t trade now; all the good squash will be gone.”