Snakes, gnats, mosquitoes — who doesn’t love a nice little outing in the swamps? o.O
Well, Abbida would rather have enjoyed another week of lentils and pickled cabbage at home than stumble around out here.
Then again, she might just be lucky enough to get her share of that, anyway…
Dear reader, if you are new to my story–welcome! Please consider starting with Chapter 1 🙂
Worlds Rising: Rebellion
Chapter 6, Part 1
“Where’s Ashok?” Abbida blurted.
Rona made a vague gesture, “He’ll catch up with us.”
Bewildered, Abbida tried making sense of it all. Hadn’t this whole trip been Ashok’s idea in the first place? Shouldn’t he at least be here, then? She tried catching Cole’s eye, but he was carefully masking his true thoughts. Abbida could see why, too. Nobody in his right mind doubted that Rona was going to be head of council one day. Better stay on her good side–one never knew when this might become crucial.
And come to think of it, it probably did make sense for the council to send one of their own to keep an eye on everything–and everyone. Rona was a natural choice, obviously.
The apparitor reached for one of the water bottles, uncorked it and took a swig. Dipping her head to the side she asked, “How is your head?”
Abbida fought back the snarky response that first came to mind. In matters of common courtesy, Rona tended to be rather strict. And she was known to bear grudges for a long time. “Better, I guess. Where are we? Why did we stop?”
“The ground is getting too difficult for the cart. We’ll take a short break and then continue on foot.”
Cole shook his head, “The girl hardly had time to sleep off the alcohol.”
“We can’t afford to stay at one place for too long. Not until we’re out of reach of any detection devices.”
“Of what?” Abbida asked, confused.
Rona clicked her tongue. “No time for details now. You just keep in mind, they have the means to observe and probably even listen in on us over long distances. Very long.”
Frowning, Abbida bit down any more questions. Rona wouldn’t be inclined to answer no matter what. And Cole seemed just as much at a loss as she.
“Anyway.” Rona stood up. “Relieve yourselves, eat something, and get ready to march off. You have one hour.”
As soon as she’d stepped off the cart, Abbida grabbed Cole’s arm. “What does she mean, ‘detect us’?”
“I wish you’d stop asking me such things. How would I know?” Cole rolled his eyes. “Some sort of spying device. It enables them to see and hear things from far away.”
“Farther than the horizon, that’s for sure.”
Way back, when Mandras was younger, he used to visit the school sometimes to tell stories and check on the progress of their studies. Once, he held up an apple and told the children to look carefully at it. It seemed spotless, but when he showed them the other side–there was a worm. They understood easily, that they hadn’t been able to see it at first, because it wasn’t at eye level.
‘The same goes for the world, sort of,’ Mandras had claimed. ‘What’s beyond the horizon lies on the other side of the world, therefore we can’t see it.’
That night, Abbida had lain in bed wide awake, pondering. The world was like an apple? Did that mean, one could travel farther and farther and get to know it all? How long would it take to round the world and arrive back home?
Cole stirred, pulling her mind back to the present. He got up, opened the cart door and hopped off, causing the cart to dip again. Bracing herself, Abbida made to follow him while he walked up to Tarek. They were discussing the weight of their equipment and how to distribute Abbida’s luggage between themselves until she had fully recovered. In a rush she stuck her head outside, “I’m quite capable of carrying my own stuff!”
“I know, I know” Tarek grunted. “You’ll get your chance, don’t worry. For the time being I have no intentions of having to carry you, also, if you break down. You take it easy, and tomorrow you can go ahead and prove yourself.”
“Better take him up on his offer. It’s a rare event, seeing him so generous,” Cole said, grinning suggestively.
Tarek flipped him off and, eyeing Cole’s satchel with all its embroidered flowers, butterflies and little hearts warily, he said, “I can’t believe I have to suffer the sight of… that.”
Cole only laughed.
With nobody paying any more attention to her protests, Abbida decided not to press the issue any further. Her stomach did still feel queasy, and her headache wasn’t quite gone either. Carrying a full weight of luggage seemed a daunting task. She filled a cup with water, sat on edge of the cart and drank in tiny sips.
Sullenly, she took in their surroundings. They were resting in the middle of a swamp. Every footstep you took roused myriads of tiny flies and left craters in the mush, that immediately filled with stinking, muddy waters. There was a constant buzzing and humming and before she knew it, some mosquito bit her in the neck. She slapped at it, too late of course, and pulled her hood over her head. She hated this expedition already!
To make things worse, she really needed to pee.
Where, though? The reeds growing in tufts everywhere reached up to her hips and would screen her nicely, actually, Alas, they also made for excellent cover for snakes, toads and maybe even crocodiles. Abbida shuddered. Were they close enough to the river for crocodiles to lurk?
It was no use–she needed protection. “Cole!”
He was leaning against the coach box, munching away on his ration of dried meat. Now he looked up, questioningly.
“I need you to keep the beasts away from me.”
Involuntarily, he glanced at Rona, and–immediately realizing his faux pas– blushed, rolling his eyes. Abbida couldn’t help the wide grin that made her feel better on the spot. “I have to pee.”
Groaning, Cole gulped down the remainders of his ration and climbed back into the cart, where she heard him rummaging for just a moment. Armed with a machete he jumped out again. “Better hurry, Rona is getting impatient.”
“She’ll have to sit tight.”
As a matter of fact, Abbida couldn’t care less about Rona’s feelings right now. She’d almost forgiven Cole by now, and she didn’t really bear any grudges with Tarek, either. They both did what they were told by the council, and Abbida might have done just the same. You didn’t go against the council elders without fear of dire consequences. But Rona was a different story altogether. Instead of having Abbida abducted, she could simply have asked her–just like she had with the guys.
Feeling grumpy again, Abbida headed for one of the more expanding tufts of reed, that conveniently grew at some distance to where Rona and Tarek were getting ready for the hike now. They wouldn’t be able to overhear any conversation she was about to have with Cole. For the sake of decency she chose a spot that should give her just enough cover without getting out of sight completely.
Standing ready with his machete, Cole urged, “Hurry up, I don’t like splitting up like this. Greater groups will be more deterrent to any lurking predators.”
Immensely grateful, that Ilka had taught her how to pee standing up, back when they were little, she turned her back to him and pulled down her pants. Not for all the food in the world would she have crouched down in this place! Sighing audibly, she relieved herself.
“Why me, Cole? Why did you bring me instead of any of the other girls?”
For a while he wouldn’t answer and she threw him a wary glance over her shoulder.
“Pure selfishness, I guess”, he finally admitted, sounding somewhat off. “I couldn’t bare the thought something might happen to you while I wasn’t even around to do anything.”
Before she could even digest all the possible implications he added hastily, “Apart from that you are the only one I trust with handling this device we’re searching for. You are my well-trained helper, after all.”
Somehow feeling rebuffed, she was about to yank her pants back up, then thought better of it. Diligently checking for intruders first and waving away some tiny flying insects she got dressed again. She could tell, some mosquitoes had used their chance, and didn’t even dare envision what they might have done to her behind. Stuffing her hands deep inside her pockets she stomped back to where Cole stood. “I think, at this point I’ve long since passed the stadium of being a mere helper. May I remind you, that I have had a big part in constructing our new machines…”
“Shush!” Cole growled.
“No! I won’t let you…”
Cole lunged out with the machete.
“No!”, Rona’s cry rang over the swamp.
Before Abbida had the chance to grasp what was going on, Cole struck right next to her ear with the flat side of the machete and whacked something big and dark off her shoulder in a wide arch–almost making her heart stop. “Are you crazy?! I almost peed myself!”
“Aw, you were all done, weren’t you? Besides, that’s why you dragged me along in the first place, isn’t it?” He grinned and winked at her.
Still rather shaky, she pouted. “What was it?”
Well, great. Back at the village, they were used to spiders. Nobody would ever go ahead and reach into dark places without checking for spiders first, for some of them were quite poisonous. Abbida hadn’t known spiders lived in the swamps, too, though. On the other hand, the fact worsened her situation only marginally.
On the way back to the cart she checked her surroundings even more carefully than before. They circumvented patches of reeds that were predestined to house toads or other poisonous critters, and reached the others just as Rona and Tarek were hoisting their packs. Abbida’s was much lighter than the others’ and this time she didn’t complain. After the episode with the spider, her knees still felt a bit shaky.
Rona seemed rather strained herself. “You ready?”
“Sure, no problem. Just a spider.”
“A what?” Rona frowned, looking at Cole with a strange expression.
And there we go again, Abbida thought, trying to make sense of Rona’s weird reaction. Just when she was getting used to being stuck with this ragtag group, something caused her to get her defenses back up. If Rona hadn’t even noticed that little spidery escapade, why scream? Why go against her own orders to be quiet in order to not be detected by any strange listening devices?
On the other hand, Abbida didn’t really buy into that story, anyway. How was that supposed to work? Apart from them there was nobody far and wide.
Rona didn’t seem to notice or didn’t mind her renewed suspicion. She plodded ahead through the mud leading the ox by its strap. Poor thing had to carry the largest burden: their tent and hearth along with their supply of fire wood. Tarek was following in Rona’s tracks, and Cole motioned for Abbida to walk ahead of him. Machete in hand, his eyes constantly scanning the surrounding swamps, he left her no doubt, that he was going to form the tail no matter what.
Feeling empty-handed, Abbida pointed at his weapon, “Why don’t I get one of those?”
“Actually, you should. We packed for four. Maybe it got buried underneath the rest of our stuff?”
Hardly, Abbida thought, not putting it past Rona to keep her unarmed on purpose. She found it hard to trust Rona. How did she even know where to go and what to look for? And if they actually did find a ship–how would they even recognize this ominous device of hers?
The more Abbida thought about it, the more she felt Rona knew more about the Conquerors than she let on. How about the rest of the council? Had they deliberately been keeping everyone in the dark all this time? What else were they hiding from their neighbors?
And what about Cole? Should she trust him? After all, he had kidnapped her against her express will. More than once she’d disapproved of this idiocy! On the other hand, his excuse sounded rather scatterbrained, but overall sincere. No, she didn’t want to think about this now. Let time be the judge of that.
She had more pressing problems to deal with now. That this trek wasn’t going to be a fun trip, had been clear from the outset. But, that it would wear her out just this much, Abbida hadn’t anticipated. A heavy haze was weighing down on landscape and spirit. Damp air clung to her like a second skin, making her itch and sweaty after the first few strides. Darned mosquitoes didn’t help.
As if that wasn’t enough, she was still suffering from hangover. Her stomach seemed filled with hot acid and, trudging along, her legs felt heavier with each step. Of course, her ill health wasn’t the only reason for that. The deeper they ventured into swamp lands the more arduous it became to lift one’s feet off the ground against the resistance of sludge. Every footprint filled up quickly with murky water and Abbida feared it couldn’t be long before it would slosh into her boot legs. The moldy smell became overbearing–even if you were sober, as she could tell by the looks on Cole’s and Tarek’s faces.
Rona was the only one who seemed unfazed and dead set on reaching their destination in one day. Only when Abbida stumbled into a pothole and almost tipped over, did Rona call to a halt, “All right, everybody have a bite to eat and some water!”
There was nowhere to sit, so Abbida wolfed down her ration standing up. Rona seemed nervous. Shading her eyes with her hands she gazed far ahead, blinking, but there was nothing to be seen. As far as Abbida was concerned they’d reached the end of the world long since. From now on the water was only going to rise higher, drowning everything and everyone.
Tarek stepped closer to Rona, muttering, “A word?”
She frowned as if unwilling, then nodded brusquely. Together they trudged out of hearing distance.
Uncorking her water bottle, Abbida watched them curiously. “What’s that all about now?”
“What else? Tarek’s our best hunter. I bet he wants to shoot us some fresh meat.”
“Around this place? What’s he going to feed us? Snakes in a muddy crust?!”
Cole shrugged his shoulders, reaching for the bottle. She gave it to him and stooped to massage her aching calves. Her leather boots were soaked with mud and water seeping in. She was cold and aching and dead tired–and it was still only late afternoon, judging by the position of the sun. Knowing Rona, they would probably have to go on like this for quite some time.
Groaning she cast a glance to where Rona and Tarek were still debating… what ever it was. Rona must have rebuffed Tarek’s suggestion, for he was gesturing agitatedly now while she only shook her head with a stern expression. He pointed towards the east now, his arm stretched out wide, finger poking the rising mist.
Oh no. Abbida groaned again, this time in disgust, and elbowed Cole, “You see that? Might as well forget about getting out of here today, if that fog gets thicker.”
The swaths were billowing around their ankles, growing denser as they were watching. Soon, Tarek and Rona were only visible from their knees on up, the rest of them quickly being swallowed up, too. A hissing sound pierced the eerie silence, and the yellowish glow of a torch lit up, coming closer. They heard Tarek’s and Rona’s muffled voices before they saw them looming up right in front of them. This was just great, Abbida groaned inwardly.
“We need to get out of here,” Rona demanded.
But Cole protested, “We’ll only get lost!”
“So what do you suggest? Are you going to camp out here and sleep standing up?”
Rona didn’t need to impress anyone; her tone alone got most opponents to retreat. But Cole was not easily intimidated. “We’re gonna need a tether, so we don’t lose sight of one another. It may also come in handy if somebody looses their footing.”
Although he wasn’t looking at her, Abbida got the distinct impression he might be referring to her. Actually, she couldn’t blame him. She wasn’t sure, she’d make it through this slick muck in one piece, either. Oh, lovely. Feeling tired and sore, she rubbed her eyes. This whole expedition was already turning out a living nightmare.
Cole’s suggestion was sound, though, so Rona adopted it and had them tie their ropes together with loops for all of them. By the time they were ready to move on, fog cloaked the entire plain, blending in with the clouds, with the sun only showing itself occasionally–a bleak, dirty disk tarnished by copper rust.
Leading the ox, Rona was marching ahead of the group again, with the glow of her torch hardly reaching Abbida, while Cole’s torch cast a creepy aura around her from behind. A clammy chilliness was seeping through her clothes. The tether and her satchel chafing her skin through the fabric. She was freezing. Her toes in her soaked-through boots felt numb.
Suddenly, a jolt ran through the tether. The ox bleated–a bloodcurdling, piteous cry, half-swallowed by the fog, followed by a mighty splash. Rona screamed! The sludge sloshed up and wide for Tarek and even Abbida to get drenched. Rona’s torch died.
“Rona!” Tarek yelled, his voice sounding muffled, unreal. “Rona!”
Thank you for reading!
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Keep your head up!