One Bad Turn (#amwriting with the Writing Reader)
This piece has been trapped in the Drafts folder for long enough, time to let it see the light of day...
Laryn slogged through the briny gray mud near the old bridge. His overly-patched and hastily-tarred waders were leaking again. The raft was stuck again. For the fourth time since they rounded the bend and decided to cut through the Low Land Marshes. They'd have to light the lanterns soon. The sun was going down and they still had more than a few miles to go. Lukas was an idiot.
Shuna started prepping the oil-lamps. There was no way they'd get the raft through all of these weeds and all this stinky mud before nightfall. Purple in the front. Orange in the back. Red on either side. She would hold onto the Blue-spike. Just in case they ran into something that wouldn't be turned away by the other lamps. The grip was loose. It would need to be repaired when they got back.
Lukas fumed. According to his compass and the map they should be a lot farther along than they were. It just didn't make any sense. He had no wish to spend the night squelching through the mud trying to drag the raft past all these weed-hummocks and fallen trees. He took his bearing on the old bridge one more time. Looked down at the water-proofed map. Froze. It was upside down.
Shuna hung the second Red lamp on it's hook. Twisted the guard back into place. Made sure it was lit. No sense hanging one of the things out there unless it was going to do some good. She turned back from the side of the raft in time to catch Lukas' expression of dismay. She knew it was going to be trouble. He probably screwed up with the map again.
Lukas pounded his fist on the make-shift table. Not again. His father would be furious. He'd never be left in charge of a raft again. He'd be lucky to get stuck with fixing the wet fences and winter barricades for the rest of his time on the farm. Maybe he should just save everyone some trouble and head off to the city now. He was plenty old enough to make the trip. Just had to follow the road. Like his older sister had done last Spring. He snorted. At least he wouldn't need a map to find his way. All the roads in these parts led to one place, or rather away from it. He wondered what would happen if he did decide to go in the other direction. What was out there past the river, beyond the settlements. Maybe he could join-up with a band of nomads.
Laryn slipped. Nearly went under. At least the water was getting deeper now. More water, fewer weeds; that'd get things moving again. Maybe they could make up for some of the time they lost fighting their way through all these weeds. Then he noticed the leaf stuck to his waders. A red leaf. The tar on his waders sizzled slightly where the leaf touched it.
Lukas cleared his throat. What he had to say would probably provoke a fight. He knew that Laryn was still sore at him from the last time. It had been an honest mistake. They've always been honest mistakes. There had just been too many of them. This time his screw-up might land them in real trouble. With a sinking feeling in his stomach he reversed the map, followed the river down to the place he thought they had been and backtracked. There was the old bridge. There it was on the map. They were too far West.
Laryn nearly choked. His face scarlet with rage. "You stupid bastard!" He threw down his pole. Shrugged out of the make-shift harness attached to the tow rope. Grabbed onto the railing. Clambered aboard the raft. "We're headed right into a patch of Red Weeds!"
Shuna dropped the Blue-Spike. It shone with the peculiar glow it tended to get when it was exposed to kill-shades and biting shadows. She clamped her hands over her mouth so as not to scream. She could feel it all around them. That haze in the air wasn't entirely mist or fog. They were surrounded by billowing masses of raw ectoplasm. There were worse things in this place than an infestation of Red Weeds. There were bodies down there in the mud. There were geists in this place. They were in one of the bad places their parents had always warned them about.
Laryn grabbed Lukas. His fist ready to smash the older boy's face into a bloody mess. He caught himself before he hit his cousin. Pushed him away. "You read the damn map wrong again. Didn't you?"
Shuna stood beside the rail staring down in horror at the wriggling pink worms, the bloated leeches, the rotting cadavers mired down with rusty chains and rotted ropes. She was too afraid to make a sound. She could feel the hungry evil things watching them. Waiting. It was getting darker.
"Yes." Lukas knew better than to say he was sorry. That's only make things worse. Then he'd really get a beating. Maybe he deserved it. But he wasn't going to volunteer for it. "But I think we can still get out of here--"
Shuna couldn't pull herself away from the railing. She couldn't stop herself from watching the foul, polluted water and all the things moving about beneath its surface. She was screaming and screaming, but no noise came out.
Lukas stabbed the map with his dirty index finger. "We're here." I checked against the old bridge and your finding the Red Weeds pretty much cinches it. If we go this way, veer East less than half a mile, we can reach one of the smaller channels cut through the Low Marshes by the river. We can follow the river back to the enclave. Even in the dark."
Laryn stared at the map. The large blotch of red ink. The warning scratched over the section now stained by Lukas' finger. He wanted to beat his cousin to a pulp, but it wouldn't get them out of this mess. And the blood would only attract worse troubles. He went over to the railing. Reached down for his pole floating upon the oily surface of the foul-smelling water. Something grabbed him before he could get the pole.
Lukas jabbed down with his own pole. Skewering the puffy man-shape and releasing a vile miasma of necrotic gasses. Jab, jab, jab--finally the clutching corpse fell apart and released its hold on Laryn. "Grab your pole. We're going to need it."
Laryn stood up. His legs were shaking. That thing nearly got him. Lukas had just saved is life. Maybe he wasn't such a useless bastard after all. "Let's get busy. Sun is setting. We've got maybe half an hour before we run out of light and I want to be as far away from this place as we can get before something else shows up. You and Shuna push from the back. I'll guide us past the hummocks and logs since I already pulled us over most of them on the way out here..."
Shuna didn't move. Didn't make a sound. She didn't dare.
Laryn dropped his pole against the railing. Yanked out his knife. Went to the front of the raft. He was barely in time. The rope parted and fell away even as some grotesque tumorous mass was flowing up the rope towards the raft. He hated to lose a good rope, but after soaking in this tainted slop it probably wasn't a very good rope any more.
Shuna could hear them now. Bitter, brittle whispers that scratched her ears painfully. Hatefully. They delighted in tormenting her. Just like gramma had warned her. It wasn't her fault. She didn't ask to be born the way she had been. They were coming closer.
Lukas began to push the raft along. He looked at Shuna. She was too quiet. Too still. He reached out.
Shuna's screams exploded into the air. Knocking Lukas against the railing. She screamed and screamed and screamed until there wasn't enough air in her lungs to do more than make ghastly gurgling noises.
Lukas heaved himself off of the railing and grabbed hold of Shuna. Her eyes were wide with terror. He didn't know whether to shake her or to hug her. Then she clutched onto him. Shivering. Crying. she whispered hoarsely; "They're coming."
Laryn fought with the weed humps, logs and other debris. It was growing dimmer with each second. He felt badly for Shuna, but that one had always been a bit touched. Like her mother before her. He couldn't spare her any of his attention. If they didn't get out of this place right now, they were as good as dead, or worse. He wasn't going to let that happen.
Lukas hugged Shuna tight. For a moment he felt like he could hold onto her forever. Then he heard Laryn grunting and cursing as he fought with the debris in front of them. Lukas forced Shuna back from him a bit, tilted her head so she was looking into his eyes. "We need to help Laryn now. That's all that matters. Getting out of this place." She nodded. Still terrified, but more afraid of what would happen if she gave up. She picked up the Blue-spike and set it in the holder next to her spot. Took up her pole. Began pushing against the weeds and debris.
Laryn felt the raft start moving from more than just his own efforts. Finally. He refrained from saying anything snide. He needed to save his breath. They had a lot of poling to get through before they could relax enough to call each other names.
Shuna closed her eyes. She forced herself to operate like a machine. It was the only way to get through the fear. She tried desperately to drown out the voices. nothing worked.
Laryn saw it before the others. A flickering witchlight off in the waterlogged trees atop one of the low mounds that dotted this stretch of the marshes. He started to warn them both then stopped himself. He didn't want to upset Shuna any further. She was barely holding it together as it was, no sense in disturbing her further. Besides, she could probably feel the thing. That was partly how her mother described it to them. Before she was taken by the prowlers last Winter. He decided to ignore the flickering light and to concentrate on getting the raft back across the shallows to that channel on the map. He only hoped it hadn't grown-over since the map was last corrected.
Shuna began to sing a children's rhyme to herself. Just under her breath. Something to help her focus on pushing the raft along. Push. Bring the pole back. Push.
Lukas worked harder than ever before. He never meant to get them into this sort of a predicament. He never meant to get things wrong. It just happened. Sweat ran down his back. The pole was growing slick and his arms were getting heavy. He started to slow down. What was that? some sort of light off to the right?
Shuna's rhyme came out all garbled and nonsensical. Her voice echoed oddly in the encroaching gloom. The lamps along the sides of the raft had a festive look to them. She couldn't scream any more. She couldn't cry any more. She felt drained. Empty. The only thing that mattered was to keep moving the raft along.
Lukas watched the flickering light off to the side. They were approaching a point where the wooded mound sloped down to the marsh. They'd be passing close to where the mound ran into the marsh. Awful close. the light wove in and out around the trees. Like it was playing some silly children's game. He realized that it was keeping pace with them. Following them.
Laryn didn't like the looks of the way ahead. What he could see through the murkiness and the last of the twilight. The Purple lamp might drive off some of the nastier jellies, but it didn't make it any easier to see what was out there. He could barely make out the outlines of some fallen trees, old stumps, some sort of stone-pile. At least it looked like someone had stacked a bunch of field stones into some kind of marker or other. It wasn't until they were passing over a section of rotted log and he looked up to see that the pile of stones was someone's crude cairn. There were people buried on that island-like mound.
Lukas watched the flickering light as it approached. It moved more warily now. They were nearly to the channel now. He made up his mind.
Laryn shoved hard. The raft slid past the log. Moved freely for the first time since they took the wrong turn. He heaved harder. They were picking up momentum now. There was a current that would help them not work against them for a change.
Shuna dropped her pole. Stared at the glimmering green light that was moving closer, ever closer to them. She knew then; it was going to catch them.
Laryn swore. They were caught in a bind. Either they rode with the current and curled around the point of the mound, drawing much closer to it than he wanted, or they fought against it and tried their damnedest to hold off from the mound as far as they could. But there were more fallen trees over on that side. They could get stuck. Whatever as on that island-mound, it knew their situation even better than they did. It felt like some sort of ambush.
Shuna dropped to her knees. It was coming closer. The thing's cold malevolence assaulted her soul. She couldn't move. The fear was too intense.
Lukas saw what was happening to Shuna. He knew what had to be done. He grabbed the Blue-spike and called out to Laryn; "Whatever happens don't you dare turn around. Don't stop for anything. Get Shuna home. For what it's worth, I'd rather take that beating you were going to give me than this, but we're out of options..."
"What are you doing?" Laryn yelled.
Shuna watched numbly as Lukas clambered over the railing with the Blue-spike. He splashed through the shallows, towards the mound with the cairn on it. Where the light flickered hungrily. Where it waited for him.
Lukas didn't look back. He shifted his grip on the Blue-spike. Made sure his fore-finger was properly inside the guard-loop and on the trigger. One foot in front of the other. He wouldn't need any map where he was going. Not ever again.
Laryn saw Lukas make his way up the slope of the mound then turned back to the dark waters in front of him and focused all his attention, his every effort on getting him and Shuna back home.