Those two words could be put together as one to make mudwaters and that would be the swamp lands which spread twenty arms up in the north, used as a smugglers port, an illegal fighting ring, a hideout, and a home for deadly creatures to hide and grow and gain strength until they come out into the world and attempt to surprise us by swallowing us whole.
But Mud Waters was a town. No, it was a community of people that had made the ever-shifting mudwaters their town, using the beasts as food, the smugglers for trade, and the fighting for prophet. Most that lived in Mud Waters were wanted thieves, greedy witches, and people on the run.
Or at least, that’s what it once had been.
This self-sufficient community had managed to grow over the years. They had children and raised them there, they taught their people to fight and defend themselves instead of to steal or fight away the knights that hunt for them. Most who spoke of this place said the name with disgust, but any of whom that had been there for any length of time learned to love it.
Oh, it was still filled with deadly creature, thieves, smugglers, and runaways – but it was a home, too.
However, it has been years since I stepped into the swamp and even longer since I lived there, hidden on a scrap of land as Jovian trained me from noon to night until I was too exhausted to even scratch at my bug bites. I have a very vivid memory of watching a fly land on my arm, steal a chunk of my skin, and fly off again while I tried to get up the energy to swipe it away.
In the summer, it was similar to a desert as there was no drinkable water, little shade, and the heat that came from the waters below made you hotter than the air made you. More often than not, people died of starvation and dehydration when they attempted to cross, as the water was too sickly to be drinkable.
But in the winter, even late as it was, it was just fine as there was only a bit of warmth from the water. Just enough to keep you from freezing. So long as you had water to drink, you would survive easily enough.
And so long as you knew your way through the swamp, of course.
We stood on a raft and pushed it through with poles while also keeping sure the pole ahead of the raft was not too low to sink down. The swamp was riddled with drop-offs and that was where the darkest of creatures hid, so those were to be avoided at all cost.
However, it was also a maze. Looking around the foggy waters, it looked like there were several places to land only to find that it had been a mass of water-reeds or ancient, rotting roots from before the Eastwood had spread into the mudwaters several hundred years ago. These were the best ways to go, however, and when Aitch went to turn us toward a clearer path instead, I corrected him.
He paused, pole in the water. “But we’re going north.”
I shrugged, either way would get us where we were going, it would simply be more complicated his way. Aitch hesitated and looked to Arion.
Arion studied me a moment, then motioned with a nod of his head, apparently trusting me with this at least. Aitch turned east, and not an hour later, we were going north again and there was the first hint of people, sparring on the shore. They paused when they saw us and called out. “Where you headed?”
“North Border.” Arion called back.
“It’s high tide for another hour, best rest up at the shore.”
Arion called out his thanks and we passed, but then he turned to me for explanation. “High tide?”
“Meaning heat.” I explained, glad to know something he didn’t but trying not to sound smug. “Not the water. It’s a slang mud-term. Every few days a piece of the waters will turn hot enough to boil.”
“We still alright to pass now?”
I nodded. “We can pass – it’s only deadly if we fall in – but he’s right, we should land at shore for the hour.”
He pursed his lips, debating, though I wasn’t sure why. When I questioned him, he only gave me a look that said the reasoning was obvious, which it was not.
He sighed when I didn’t get it. “You, on a small spot of land with thieves and smugglers?” He huffed. “If I bring you there, I’m just asking for trouble.”
But in the end, we did go to shore.
Arion regretted it instantly.
“Fighting matches.” He said blandly.
I grinned. “We’re just in time for the Bloods.” I said with excitement but tugged my hood further over my face just the same.
The shore should actually be titled like a name - it was where people gathered for fights, trade and just about everything else, except the shore kept moving from one spot to the next depending on the change in landscape. It was always easy to find however, due to how loud it was.
Today it was even louder than the average day, the crowd wider as people placed bets on which masked fighter should win.
A man, bare-chested and covered in mud, sweat and blood, roared from the top of the platform like a beast which suited his mask – of iron and made to look like a wolf. The crowd cheered, returning a roar of their own, clearly claiming him as the favorite. I looked at the other fighter instead who stood on the sidelines, getting booed at. He, too, was bare chested but it was obvious he had yet to fight as he was as clean as one could be. His mask was only a cloth over his eyes, never used by the looks of it.
Still, I had an inkling that he would win. Though he was far smaller, younger, and obviously inexperienced in the Bloods, his smirk and the way he stood reminded me so much of my own attitude when I was young. Confidant. Sure. Yet, not cocky. Not flaunting it, simply waiting for my turn to prove my strengths.
I remembered being up there, fighting against people other than Jovian for the first time. I had loved it. It had been the first time I understood how strong I was. Even with my natural magic being suppressed my entire life, I was still stronger than the average fighter. It was no wonder the Greyov family had been so feared and revered before the Beoworth’s rose up with the stolen power of the Grey Stone.
We watched the fighting from the edge of the crowd, the Shadows and I, and I desperately wanted to find my old mask and join in. I wanted, I realized, to impress the Shadows who seemed to think I was a doll that would break at the slightest tap.
My hand, still healing, itched beneath my glove, reminding me that they had every reason to think of me in such a way.
I straightened, my heart instantly pounding at the sound of my name. Did someone see me? I’d picked it out of the crowd of talking with selective hearing but could not pin-point it now. Had someone recognized me? Did I need to run? I searched for anyone looking my way but found no one.
Until I did, just ahead of me. A rough looking man with spots in his eyes, and a young woman – native to the mudwaters if her stringy hair had anything to say about it – and seemingly eager for gossip.
I stepped forward before I could think it through, and they turned to me instinctively.
They cannot see beneath your hood. I reminded myself. It is far too dark to see. They don’t know who you are.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear...”
The girl grinned and faced me fully, glad to find another gossiper. “Isn’t it amazing? The girl still lives!”
“I doubt that very much.” Said the gruff man with a wave of his hand, eyes on the fight – the smaller one was winning, as I’d suspected. “He would have found her with the Stone years ago.”
“I’m telling you,” insisted the girl. “That’s what they said.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The Dragon Knights!” She grinned. “I overheard them talking and they were saying there was no sign of the lost princess after all. That the source had to have been mistaken.”
The man snorted at this. “How could it have been mistaken? The thoughts come straight from our heads. The girl is dead. Now stop spreading that story around or the dragons will be back to take you off.”
That was it for their conversation, but it stuck with me for a long time after we left.
Those Dragon Knights had been looking for me? But how? Who had seen me? And what kind of source could be so unreliable that the king didn’t send his entire army to search the land thoroughly? If he truly believed I was alive, then surely he would have sent his army even through Eastwood to...
It suddenly hit me: the siren.
It had known who I was. Sirens were able to manipulate thoughts and force people to see who they wanted to see, they were also able to use these images to lure them to the pools where the siren waited, which is exactly what it had done to me. But though they were powerful and intelligent, they were still simply animals with inhuman thought processes. It was very possible that the Stone caught pieces of the sirens thoughts and saw it to be the daughter of the long-dead queen.
Would Marqis stop looking now then? Or would he search harder? Surely he knew I was alive, or at least his father had known. They’d told the public that I’d died with my parents but King Carigus Beoworth knew it to be false. He must have told his son.
Yes, he had, because Jovian told me the Stone was ordered to find me specifically, as well as any sort of rebellious thoughts against the current crown. They would not have done so if they did not know that I was still alive. They would not have done this if they did not still fear my name.
But they would crush me without a power strong enough to counteract the Grey Stone, and so to the Black Mountains we would go.
But I kept my hood tighter around my face than I had before, and I would not again insist on stopping into anywhere crowded. It would be the five of us from then on and that was that. Because if Marqis believed I was alive, and inside Nahdiera at that, he would hunt me with a thousand dragons, and I would fail my father.
Suddenly, the raft was too slow once again. As we maneuvered through the dangers and worked around the worst of them, I wished only to hurry. I had all the time in the world. Wait until you are ready my father had written, and Jovian, always reminding me to have patience.
But with the king focusing on finding me, my time was only running out.
“What’s going on?”
“Why have we stopped?”
I opened my eyes at the voices, groggy. I’d fallen asleep at some point through the long journey across the mudwaters and it had been so silent, I felt like I could have slept for the remaining three weeks of the journey except for the sudden rise of voices.
“What’s going on?” I croaked, then cleared my throat, wishing for water. We still had some, but we would need to ration it carefully if we wanted to make it to the other end. I looked around, seeing everyone was standing now. We were still in the mudwaters and it was foggy. There were a few wil’o’wisps glowing, showing a way to a witch, no doubt, but they were distant and could not have been what caused the ruckus.
“We’ve stopped.” Said Arion, he had his sword in hand though he could see nothing to fight.
I saw that, obviously. “But why?”
Aitch looked guilty as if he’d done something wrong. “I don’t know, we just can’t go any further.”
I stood to my feet quickly. “You mean, we’re stuck?”
“No. We’re just...”
“Frozen.” I understood, feeling how still the raft was beneath my feet, and grimaced, shuddering slightly along with it.
Arion noticed my reaction. “You know what it is.” It was not a question.
“Burrs.” I answered.
“A swarm of burrs.” I explained, my voice subdued. “Under us. They’re holding the raft still.” I cursed to myself. “It must be mating season. They mate every few years, but they can only lay eggs if warm bodies pass by at the right time.”
“Let me guess,” Jazera said blankly, “that time is now.”
“Apparently.” I tightened my cloak around myself. “Put those weapons away, they won’t do any good.”
“What’s going to happen? What are they?” Asked Arion, not looking pleased to be the one having to ask me as he put his sword away.
"What?” Aitch squeaked in a way that would have been amusing if I wasn’t so angry – something else to delay us.
“They’re just small and annoying but they’ll bite.” I warned. “A lot. It’s how they lay their eggs. I was attacked out here as a little girl for this and it’s the kind of pain I will never forget, but you can’t do anything about it. Just let them bite you and get it over with because if you don’t, they’ll just keep coming anyway.” I motioned everyone down. “Get down here and cover up best you can. They won’t be long, they’re just gathering below.”
They all started to bend down. Aitch nearly dropped and tugged his cloak so tightly around him that he actually made himself look somewhat small.
Jazera was more hesitant. “You just want us to let them lay eggs in us?”
“A witch can remove them.” I motioned to the wisps. “We just have to wait this out.”
We all curled into little balls and pressed against each other on the raft that was perfectly still in an unnatural way on the water. Our heads were pressed together so closely that my skull would surely bruise, and our cloaks were tightly wrapped around our bodies, tucked under our knees and over our faces, nearly smothering us.
But still when the burrs came, we were not close enough.
The pain was just as terrible as I remembered – an agonizing pierce that seemed to resonate through the body like a horrible echo. Not sharp enough to make you scream, but horrid enough to make you wonder if screaming would help.
But the memories were worse.
As the thin, hay-colored snakes weaved over the wood of the raft and pierced my back with the narrow ejection tubes hidden behind their fangs, I remembered the young, twelve-summer-old me alone on a much smaller raft, watching them swarm me. I remembered how I had felt so powerless. I’d been running from Jovian again at the time, tired of the constant training and tired of the constant need of a friend. I’ll cut my hair! I’d told him, nearly crying out the words. And keep my marks covered! No one will know who I am! I promise!
I said no, Mir. It’s not safe. If the dragons come–
Then I’ll kill them all!
No! I’m strong, Jovi! Just because of some stupid Stone-
I said no!
And I had run off, faster than Jovian at such an age could and taken the raft, planning on running far away and never returning.
Then the burrs had stopped my raft and I’d been absolutely and completely helpless.
Having no idea what they were, I’d fought them off as best as I could, screaming at the pain of each pierce, frantic with the fear of posion. I’d been more than terrified by the pain, I’d felt alone and helpless and useless and for the first time in my life, Jovi wasn’t there.
When they had finally stopped and left me alone, I’d been a shaking mass of tears, more traumatized by the horror of it than by the pain itself. When Jovi had finally come upon me drifting aimlessly over the water, he had explained what had happened and gotten me to a witch. I had a few scars from my encounter, but mostly I was physically fine.
But that was when I’d put my every effort into my training. That was when I realize how helpless I was, how much I needed to learn, and I vowed to myself to do my best at every step.
“Mir. Mir? They’re gone.”
They were. Lost in my memory, I hadn’t noticed.
I am Meira Greyov. Nahdiera is my kingdom. I have to stand up now. No more crying. Stop it. Stop it now.
I sat up from my crouched position and wiped the tears from my face – I hadn’t even known they’d fallen. The raft rocked noticeably. Wonderfully. Naturally.
I ached all over.
“Follow the wil’o’wisps.” I said with a grimace, motioning. “Quickly. We only have a couple hours before this can’t be undone, and we end up harvesting those things with our life in a few weeks.”
Arion twisted his gaze to me while Aitch – pale and shaking from encountering his phobia – started yanking the pole hard enough that I was surprised it didn’t crack.
“Why did you not say that before?” Arion demanded of me, then he frowned with confusion as he saw my eyes; apparently it was bright enough to see that I had been crying beneath my hood.
“It wouldn’t have done any different if I had.” I said as I shook out my cloak, wondering how I would cover the marks on my back without Jovian’s help. Then, to distract him from his lingering looks, I continued with a smirk. “And, I didn’t want Aitch to start screaming like a little girl.”
Aitch grinned at me, as he always did to anyone who insulted him. Aitch was a man who seemed to appreciate every insult so long as it was a good one, whether it be said cruelly or in jest. “I hate witches nearly as much as I hates snakes, Little One.” He told me
“Well you’ll have to endure it unless you want snakes coming out of every orifice.”
Aitch shuddered violently and pushed the pole hard enough to make the raft rock.