The black water rippled as the worm charged. Tewer tensed and raised his spear a little higher. He ignored the frightened bleating of the goat, and followed the line of watery chevrons with his eyes. He struck just as the worm emerged from the water. The tooth-filled mouth gaped wide but then snapped shut as the spear struck home. The blunt snout of the predator knocked the goat backwards, but did no real harm.
Tewer leaned hard on his spear, trusting the rope around his waist to keep him from falling to the water. The worm wrenched away, but feebly, and Tewer dragged it back, pushing the spear further into the hairy body.
The worm shook violently, then stilled. Tewer carefully looped a rope around its snout and neck, tying it off with shaking hands. The spear-shaft quivered suddenly, and Tewer's hand went to his knife as he waited. The worm didn't move again.
Minutes passed while Tewer slowly pulled the heavy animal onto his raft. The ropes were thick, but Tewer still lacked a man's muscles. Though strong enough for a sixteen-year-old, he knew from painful experience that he couldn't match the strength of a man grown.
The worm finally aboard, Tewer cautiously retrieved his terrified goat. The goat scrambled to get away from the dead worm, and Tewer tied its halter to a small rail and picked up his pole. The added weight made his usually quick raft sluggish, and it seemed to take hours before the craft began to move. He shivered as he pushed his pole into the soft mud; worm-blood dripped from the low deck into the water, and a worm would swim for miles to eat another of its kind.
As the raft finally began to make headway, he turned to look at his catch. The biggest worms could be twenty feet long, and Tewer's measured no more than twelve feet from snout to tail. It seemed larger than normal, however, both fatter and more muscular. The black fur had streaks of gray and greenish-brown, the claws shone like obsidian, and the hundreds of teeth, over which a yellowish tongue lolled, gleamed white in the sunlight. No wonder it had been so hard to lever onto the raft! It bulked twice as fat as most worms.
Murder-worms, properly called Waelhreowyrms, lived nowhere else in the world but in the coastal swamps of the northern Theljan Reach, but their homeland was the island they'd given their name. Whaelhreow meant either 'ferocious in battle' or simply 'murderous,' depending on who you asked. Tewer sided with murderous, and he had scars to prove it.
It took almost two hours to pole the worm back to Swartmutha while Tewer sweated and shivered. Spring still teased and taunted, but her promises continued to ring hollow. Tewer wore only a woolen smock and breeches, though at least his boots were sheepskins. Without cap or gloves, the cold ate at him, but he endured grimly.
"It's the big one," he said aloud, stuttering with the cold, "this will get me Krasten's spear back, and maybe a few other things besides."
From the pools and mists of the swamp a sheer cliff suddenly arose. Tewer guided his craft around the great mogote and found the entrance to Swartmutha blocked by another raft bringing in a load of fish. He bumped into it, softly enough, but the crew of the larger raft seemed annoyed.
Until they saw the great worm lying on Tewer's small craft.
"The luck-goddess gives!" One of them, a flabby man called Asparo made a rude gesture that supposedly brought the favor of Laome the Luck-goddess.
"She does, sometimes," said Tewer, "lucky the worm didn't get my goat! Now I can use him for bait again."
"Look at that fur," said another fisherman, called Hangen or Hankrin. Tewer couldn't quite remember. "Beautiful fur. Worth a lot."
"I hope so," said Tewer, "he's a fat one, that's for sure."
The fishing raft entered the cave at last, and Tewer followed, his hand resting on his knife. For several moments he couldn't see in the darkness of Swartmutha, but at last his eyes adjusted. The landing was full, and fish were being unloaded all along the docks, but Tewer turned away from the main harbor and guided his raft towards a pair of torches on the opposite wall. The uneven stony floor of the cavernous port made poling much easier, and he reached the torches, and the low landing place between them, in only a few seconds.
"Got a worm," he said as the raft scraped against the stone. "I think the Counter will want to see it himself."
From the shadows behind the sputtering torches a brown-garbed guard appeared, his spear held loosely. He looked down at the worm, and his eyebrows rose.
"Nice one, Tumor," he said, and vanished back into the shadows.
"I'm not a tumor," Tewer whispered softly. He couldn't afford to be sensitive today.
He waited several minutes, and then the pale, bald, flabby Counter appeared between the torches. The Counter wore an annoyed frown until he saw the worm, and he looked up at Tewer in surprise.
"Lovely," he said in a raspy voice, "that's a very nice fur, and enough meat and fat to keep a man all winter. What do you want for it?"
"Krasten's spear and axe," said Tewer, "and forty nails."
"Very funny," said the Counter, "perhaps I could give you the spear, and 5 nails."
It took about ten minutes of haggling before the Counter and two guards dragged the carcass off of the raft. One of the guards returned a moment later with a long, narrow bundle and a little bag. He smiled a bit grudgingly and gave them to Tewer, who only nodded as he took them, not showing the elation he felt. He lay the spear down, leaving it wrapped, and tucked the poke under his belt. He poled back out of Swartmutha and into the swamp, checking behind several times for pursuers.
He saw none, but that didn't comfort him. The gate remained untouched when he arrived home, and it took but a moment to open it, maneuver the raft into the tiny landing, and close the barrier of woven reeds again. He picked up the spear, untied the goat From the rail, and hurried up a narrow path between two trees. Pausing to release the goat into a small paddock, he stopped as he reached his own door, and checked all six telltales to ensure nobody had entered.
He sighed and opened the door in relief, though he still checked the dark corners and the little wardrobe before he closed the door. A mean, miserable place, his home consisted of just a single room that would've been twelve feet square, if it were square. In one corner lay a bed made of rushes covered by two thin woolen blankets, in the other next the door stood a clay fire-pit with a smokey clay-and-stone chimney. The only light came through a pair of small openings in the triple layered wicker-work walls, not windows, precisely, as they were only about a foot tall and a few inches wide. He had an old and feeble witch-light which he used with care, and decided as he sat in the gloom that despite his elation it wasn't an occasion that required the stolen magical stone.
As Tewer unwrapped the spear he didn't care at all that he could scarcely see anything. His knew the spear perfectly, and at least his mind's eye feasted.
Only six feet long, the spear had an eighteen-inch head, broad and sharp, its haft wrapped in scarlet suede enchanted to repel water and rot. A rune-written iron chape protected the butt, large enough for a bludgeon, but the spear overall felt very light. He had gained muscle since last he held it. Tewer tested the blade and smiled at its sharpness. Two years had passed since Krasten died unexpectedly, which allowed the Master of Swartmutha to confiscate practically everything both the old man and Tewer owned as an 'inheritance tax.' He'd allowed Tewer to keep the hunting shack, where the youth had studied the spear, but the house in the village he'd kept, leaving Tewer a knife, a few sacks, a rope, and the clothes he'd been wearing at the time.
"A long, hard struggle," said Tewer aloud. He spoke to himself a lot, as he had no friends, nobody to talk to since Krasten's death. "The spear and twenty-five nails. I think I got the best of that bargain."
He brandished the spear, moving through several deft and graceful maneuvers he'd learned from Krasten. Then he slashed and stabbed various people in Swartmutha, including the Master, in absentia.
"I may not be rich," he said, "but I'm not poor, not anymore. Nobody with a spear like this is poor."
At that moment he heard a scrape outside the hut, and glided into the narrowest corner of the shack, thick with gloom, and lowered himself into a crouch. The spearhead gleamed red as the sunset peeped through the small light-holes.
"Come and get it," Tewer whispered, a savage smile on his lips.