The stranger stepped out into the light. A gust of wind cut through him, and the hair on his arm stood erect. He pulled his cloak tightly around himself. The soft white noise of rain pattering against the mountain stone relaxed him. Small streams had begun to trickle through stony crevices and fat droplets rolled lazily from the roof of the Summit tavern. He found comfort in the rain. As a child on his father’s farm, it would trickle from the clay shingles of his home and form deep puddles. He would pretend they were great lakes and swamps filled with monsters and treasures. He imagined trophy hunting as a heroic mercenary just like his mother, Arngeal, had in her many stories. Sticks and rocks would play the part of beasts and treasure chests and even outlaws as his imagination constructed wild stories of peril and excitement. There he would sit until his mother called him in for dry clothes and warm sweet mash. She would sit with him by the cooking fire until his hair was dry, listening to him recount the daring feats of his playtime fantasy. Now, as he stood before the valley below, the crisp air stabbed him as he took a deep breath. The air felt so much colder to him now. The thrill and notoriety he had imagined as a child was finally in front of him.
He trudged through the mud of the walkway towards the Summit Gateway. It was mashed with boot prints leading back and forth, but mostly coming from the Mire and straight into the tavern. The Summit Gateway was one of a handful of entryways into the Mire, but in spite of its name, there was no gate. Instead, a tall arch of dull, orange and white stones cemented together stood in stark contrast to the brown and gray that surrounded it. Anyone at all could pass through if they wanted, but very few did, and the elevation of the mountains kept any creature infected with Woe from ever leaving the valley. Any wall or fence built to keep people out or creatures in would have been excessive or redundant, respectively.
The stranger passed through the archway and began his winding descent, following the trails of water down the path as they quickened pace, looking for somewhere to rest and be still. The rain pattered on steadily. The mountain range on either side of the Summit Gateway was mostly obscured by the weather and the valley below was a hazy white of rainfall with only vague shadows to suggest the landscape. From his mother’s stories, he knew there were swamps filled with the bones of dead trees and that the tree branches were often tangled with moss that his mother had described as “the hair of an ancient hag”. He knew also that the tiny rivers of water at his feet eventually flowed into deadly mazes of canyons worn deep and thin, waiting for unsuspecting travelers to misstep and fall into a labyrinth of waist-deep mud. When he concentrated on the vague outlines of the valley through the rain, he thought he could see the ruins of an ancient Pluroan structure, but it could have just as easily been a hill or a clearing or nothing at all.
He thought again of his mother, imagining her swinging her sword and cutting down beasts in the swamps and plunging into the dark of the Pluroan ruins to search for gleaming, ancient treasures. Before he was born, she was Arngeal Yellow-Blade. When Arngeal became pregnant with him, she retired her sword to the mantle of his father’s hovel and began helping instead with the crop of sweet root. He never understood why she would leave the life of a mercenary to farm sweet root and live in a shoddy hut. Her nightly bedtime stories would come alive with adventure and danger, and with cunning and strength she would always arise victorious from her legendary trials. On special occasions, Arngeal would take her name-sake sword from the mantle and let him study it with reverent awe.
The sword was the length of her arm with a gleaming blade of silvery-yellow, bowing out slightly at the end before coming to a deadly point. Twin golden hounds guarded the grip at the base of the blade, glaring rapaciously out in either direction with yellow diamond eyes as if looking for danger. The handle was smooth and soft, ornately wrapped in dark leather that twisted down to the pommel: a globe of shining gold crowned with a gleaming stud of yellow diamond. He would run his fingers over the handle while his mother regaled him, and she would occasionally take the blade in her hand and slice through the air, playing along with the events of her story.
The wind had stilled as he trekked further down the mountain path but the rain had remained steady. His nose burned with cold air as his breath became more labored. He was able to see the end of the path now, leading into a swamp just like his mother had told him about. Dead trees stripped of bark reached out of the water like jagged, bony fingers. The air smelled new and primitive. Taking in his first real view of the Mire, he slipped on a slick stone hidden in the clay. He fell backward, staining his yellow pants with dark mud and sliding a short way down the path. He sat for half a moment in the mud and rain, annoyed and staring down into the swamp. He took a few deep breaths before standing upright and continuing.
As he rose from the mud, the stranger gripped the hilt of his sword; an ugly, iron shortsword with knicks up and down the blade. If you looked at it just right, you couldn’t tell it was slightly bent. The handle was comfortable enough in his hand, unless he hit something too hard. In his dreams of this moment, he had always imagined his mother’s blade tucked in his scabbard, but his father sold the treasured sword after a handful of scarce harvest years that taught the two of them about hunger. He had always resented his father for that. After his mother died, all he had left of her was that sword and his memories. Now, with the fist clenching the hilt of his sword, he felt alone. It was the first moment he had been filled with any doubt since he decided he would leave his father’s hovel and the useless plot of dirt on which it sat.
The trail began to level out. Now, as he arrived at the bottom of the mountain range, the smell of the swamp surrounded him. It was earthy and ancient, as if the world had just been born that very day. As the stranger came off of the inclined path and settled into a flat and open area at the edge of the swamp, he could make out all of the details that were obscured on his way down. Scit crabs, most commonly referred to as swamp-shrimp, scuttled under the surface of the muddy banks. Most were the size of the stranger’s hand, but he knew they could grow to be the length of his arm. They left veins through the muck as they dug, ever in search of nutrients on which to feed. The stranger knew they weren’t an aggressive animal. He also knew better than to get too close. Scit crabs were skittish by nature but touching their brown, leathery shell would result in a nasty sting. If he had the proper tools, he could have hunted down a few of the larger crabs to craft armor. He could take the shells back, dry them to a ghostly white in the sun, and adorn them to a leather cuirass the same as Dervis at the tavern wore. But for now, he thought, that could wait.
On the opposite bank of the swamp, a scavenging pinch fox picked at a dead skit crab flipped on its back. The fox, less than knee high to the stranger, was another species he knew not to fear. Hairless, it’s splotched and wrinkled skin was a patchwork of pale white and dark brown, with a long and thin snout filled with tiny razor-like teeth. The fox let out a few high pitched yips of warning at an approaching skit crab looking to pick over the carcass. Grabbing a dead leg in its mouth, it dragged the rotting shell into the trees and moss to enjoy privately.
He looked over the swamp once more, scanning for anything noteworthy, but only saw the crabs pushing around under the mud, occasionally popping out of the surface. The young farmhand couldn’t help but imagine them crawling just beneath his skin. He shuddered and shook his hands out to dispose of the thought. He decided to rest at a rotting log covered in bright orange, almost luminescent fungal molds. They reached out of the cracks in the wood and blossomed into thick, curvy fans. Propping his sword and the small pack he carried under his cloak against the soft wood, the stranger sat on a corner of the log clear of the gelatinous mold. The rain had slowed to a lazy drizzle, decorating the water in the swamp with tiny rings that would never appear right where he was looking. In the dead trees at the edge of the water, the hair-like moss hung down from crooked branches, hiding the rest of the forest from view and swaying gently.
A sour odor crept into the stranger’s nose. His head swiveled around searching for its source. There, a few paces from his damp log, was a Mire aloe.The stranger recalled his mother bringing him a tiny tip of the plant once, just to sample. He spent nearly three days sucking on sweet root to finally rid the bitter taste from his mouth, and his mother and father spent three days laughing about it. Still, it was a fond memory. In one of her stories, his mother lost her drinking water in a landslide and had to survive off of the goop inside the fleshy plant. Drinking from any other water source in the Mire meant risking Woe.
After a drink from his canteen and a piece of dried meat from his pack, he opened the contract and read it thoroughly. He had overheard the general idea from Dervis and Turq in the tavern. It was sloppy. It didn’t look very official, but more like someone had scribbled it down after dinner and posted it. The reward wasn’t much, so it was likely a family affair, not something governed by any guild.
“We’re offering a reward in the amount of 150 yitzen for the safe return of our boy, Portus E’ron Hiebold, son of Tillus E’ron Hiebold. Portus was last seen entering the Mire on the third day of the second month of Peripsis. Please bring our son home. He was wearing clay mold armor, a red and black bell cloak…”
The contract didn’t have much useful information, save the target’s original purpose. Portus, it seemed, had entered the Mire looking for ore at the base of the mountains. The stranger composed a plan. Heading south between the swamp and the mountain range, he would look for signs of his target and double back if he didn’t find anything. He gathered his things, stood, and set off through dead marsh grass and thick mud in search of any trace of his target.
End Chapter 2
I'm excellent at writing informative and compelling essays, but I want to write fantasy fiction! I've just started writing and I'm currently working on my first short story in a world I'm creating as the story evolves.
I would absolutely love some feedback on the plot, characters, development, world-building, structure, and pacing! I NEED AS MUCH BIG PICTURE ADVICE AS I CAN GET!! Take a couple minutes and tell me what you think.