THE DEEP MIRE
Muddled from sleep, Willow woke at dawn with damp clothes and a sore back. Devon was down at the creek keeping post. Apparently his aggravation with the Dwarves had not subsided, and he had decided to cover the watch for the remainder of the night. With a quick glance at the still slumbering Rohan, she made her way to Devon. He appeared to be deep in thought, his knees bent, and his head resting in his hand. Not wanting to catch him by surprise, she cleared her throat to announce her approach. After a long second or two, he raised his head and turned in her direction.
“Hey, there,” Willow said.
“Good morning. You’re up early.”
“What are you thinking about?” Willow asked with polite curiosity.
“This and that. Nothing of consequence. You?”
Cryptic as always, she thought, intrigued rather than put off.
“I woke thinking about the Dwarves’ warning. It’s strange, isn’t it? A bit unsettling.”
“It certainly was interesting.”
“You don’t put much stock in their ‘grave tidings,’ I take it?” Willow asked in perfect imitation of the Chieftain’s peppery voice.
“No, not so much. They seemed to offer more questions than answers,” Devon said, scratching his head.
They fell quiet for a moment.
“All the same, I think I might scour my parents’ journal for any clues. Maybe some of their entries allude to a betrayer.”
“Good luck, but I wouldn’t count on it. I spent so much time with them and have read their journal through several times and have never picked up on anything of the sort. But who knows? Maybe their daughter will be better able to read between the lines.”
Willow felt deflated. It was Devon Riley and not their daughter, that they chose to confide in. “Maybe. I’ll leave you to your thoughts.”
“Okay. We’ll let Rohan get another hour or so of sleep, and then we’ll be off.”
Willow glanced back at Rohan, sprawled out comfortably across the soft grass. “At least someone’s getting some rest,” she said wistfully.
Devon mumbled, “Ha. Isn’t that the truth?” and resumed his previous state of brooding.
Willow strolled over to Bellefire, spending a few minutes in morning greetings before reaching into the saddle bag and pulling out the battered book. She took a seat a few feet from where the horses grazed contentedly.
With a deep sigh she opened the journal to a page at random. With all the distractions this journey had offered, she had very little private time to spend listening to the journal. Her eyes fell upon the straight hard lines of her father’s hand. After taking a moment to regain her composure, she whispered audibly:
By George, I do believe that cloaked figure -- that drifter -- attempted to set a Griffin upon us. No longer does he skirt around the fringes of the action. His allegiance has been clearly pledged to the Black Angel and the Grim. It is only by great fortune that I live to pen these very words. The Grim was closing in from behind. Our bodies had been pushed beyond our physical limits. The end was eminent -- there was no doubt of it. It would all be over much too soon -- the quest abandoned, all hope lost. Our precious daughter cruelly left with unfair burdens. Our only chance of deliverance was to gain just enough ground to throw ourselves to the mercy of the dark forest and hide in shadows. But alas, the Grim was at our heels. But then the drifter came at us from out of nowhere with a massive and angry Griffin at his side. There appears to have been some confusion, and he lost control of the Griffin. The monster started attacking its own instead of us! What kismet! The Grim scattered in fright, and we flew -- very much grateful for escape and much the wiser of the drifter’s ploys.”
When her father’s voice faded, Willow sat in silence, struck by the hopelessness of this quest. Her parents, who had survived and endured so much, had died. How was she -- how were her friends -- to survive?
“Any luck?” Devon asked breaking through her reverie.
“Not really. More of the same. You knew about the drifter’s Griffin before the Pit of Despair, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I missed the incident myself but caught up with them in the aftermath. I didn’t want to add to your worries, so I didn’t mention it. I hope you’ll forgive me. I wasn’t positive that the beast would still be a threat. Griffin’s are not easily tamed. After the drifter lost control of it, I wasn’t sure if he would ever regain his power. I didn’t want to trifle you for naught. I figured we would find out soon enough regardless.”
“I honestly don’t know what would be worse: agonizing over a monster that never turns up -- constantly looking over my shoulder waiting to be devoured at any moment -- or being caught off guard when one does appear. So I guess you did the right thing.”
“Happy to be of assistance then,” he said with the staggeringly charming smile that always left Willow breathless. “Ready to wake Rohan and head out? The Deep Mire awaits.”
Breathing deeply to calm her fluttering heart, she said, “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
The grassy downs did not give way to marsh as soon as they had thought the day before. There were still several hours of solid land to travel across. As they traveled, fewer butterflies were seen, but more mosquitoes and dragonflies. Robins and jays were replaced by kingfishers and ducks, and rabbits and mice with turtles and frogs.
By noon, though, the change was dramatic, and the grassy slope conceded to marshland. The horses began to lift their hooves with determination, as quiet sucking noises escaped the muck.
“Lady and gentleman, I give you the Marshlands of Lutulentum,” Devon said grandly.
“You say that like we’ve been looking forward to this,” Rohan quipped.
“A means to an end, my friend. A means to an end.”
Rohan leaned in close to Willow’s ear and whispered, “Since when are we friends? That’s news to me.”
“Shh, be nice,” Willow chastised him, but cracked a small smile at Rohan’s honesty.
The marsh got steadily deeper and muddier, a vast expanse of swamp land stretched before them. A gecko scuttled across the top edge of a picketed sign that read: Beware the Deep Mire.
“This is it,” Rohan said.
“Will the horses be able to cross?” Willow asked.
“They are going to have to,” Devon said giving Apollo a firm kick.
Apollo moved slowly forward sinking into the muck a little deeper with each step. Spurred on by Willow, Bellefire followed suit, her snow white coat tainted by brown mud. With the added weight of Rohan, she struggled forward. Each time one of the horses pulled a hoof free, the sucking grew more pronounced -- the slimy mud fought to hold fast. The muck bubbled like a boiling cauldron as pockets of steam burst beneath the surface. Apollo and Bellefire whinnied in distress over the difficult task set before them.
The grimy water rose steadily against the horses’ fetlocks. Apollo sank deeper and deeper into the earth, and Willow was consumed with the thought of suffocating in quicksand.
The travelers were swiftly engulfed in an abyss of mud. The swamp smelled fetid with slimy algae. Apollo abruptly came to a halt, the muddy water rising well above his knees.
“We can’t go any further or we won’t be able to extricate ourselves from the mire. As it is, I’m afraid we’ve come too far to turn around,” Devon said, his voice distraught.
Willow glanced behind her. Solid ground seemed impossibly far away.
Rohan patted her on her shoulder. “Time to use your Angel powers, Willow.”
Willow closed her eyes, fighting through a barrage of fear. What would happen if she couldn't summon them?”
“I can't do it,” she said.
“Of course, you can.” Rohan stroked her hair, and then gave her a light kiss on her cheek. “You're my amazing Willow. Feel my trust in you.”
Rohan wrapped his arms around her. She sighed and tried again. Earth and water. She had to focus on both elements.
After a minute or so, the mire slowly oozed away until a trough was forged.
“Good for you, Willow!” Rohan said with gratitude.
The soaked earth still wasn't stable, but the horses were able to now take slow steps. The eerie sucking sound continued. Willow did not fool herself into believing that they were home free. The fear of drowning in mud returned more forcefully.
An unsettling fog fell upon them. Willow could see nothing but Bellefire’s mane. The glow of Willow’s torch only revealed more fog.
Willow lost hold of her concentration, and water began to seep through the trough.
“Devon?” Willow called out.
Every few minutes, Willow and Devon called out to each other. Something splashed on her right, and then there was a rustle in the reeds to her left.
“What do you think that is?” Willow asked.
Rohan tightened his hold. “Could be anything.”
The trough was filling up again, and the horses were forced to swim in water so full of muck and slime that it seemed more solid than liquid. Bellefire snorted with effort as she pushed slowly ahead. Willow tried to manifest dry ground and clear a trail, but her efforts were futile.
“Devon?” Willow called again.
“Here!” he said from further ahead. “It’s shallower here. We must be almost through.”
Just as the marsh became shallow enough for the horses to walk again, the weeds seemed to come to life entangling Bellefire’s hooves. They slowly crept up her sides, winding their way around Willow’s ankle.
“Devon! Help! Assassin Weeds!” Willow cried as she attempted to free her leg.
Assassin Weeds were very formidable, partially mobile aquatic plants that consisted of a main stalk with smaller shoots that expelled from it. These smaller shoots entrapped their quarry, strangulating their victims before depositing the remains at the foot of the main stalk’s roots for sustenance.
The weeds’ hold on Willow’s ankle tightened and they began to climb up her calf.
Willow cried out again.
But there was no response, only the muffling sounds of a struggle in front of her. Devon must have been ensnared as well. Rohan quickly reached for his wand and pointed it at the base of the living weeds.
“Eradico!” he shouted as a jet of white light streamed from its end. The weeds burst into flames, sizzled, and died.
Willow panted. “Quick we have got to help Devon!”
The fog had lifted enough for her to just make out the tangled mess of weeds that was Devon and Apollo. The knotted mass reared up as Apollo bucked fiercely trying to free himself. Rohan took calculated aim with his wand and then stalled.
“What if I hit Devon or Apollo?”
“You don't have a choice. Do it!” Willow screamed.
“Eradico!” he shouted fiercely and Apollo and Bellefire raced forward.
“You’re a lifesaver, mate,” Devon said once they reached the safety of solid ground.
Rohan blushed with pride and shrugged, while Willow burst into tears.