Braggart’s Bay

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“Edmund, you really do trust in people too much,” Tangleroot said, picking her sharp teeth with a fingernail. She had eaten a fish, as he had, earlier on the ship, and was attempting to hook a bit of fishbone out from behind her backmost teeth. Since they had been on a ship, and thus were surrounded by endless ocean, they had little choice in other fare, except hardtack and sun-dried tomatoes. “One of these days it will be your end. Indeed, I can think of the epithet for your tombstone now: ‘Here lies Edmund, Master’s Apprentice, who mastered all things except his own naivete.’”
Edmund sighed and lolled about with the tossing of the Maiden Innocence, which was such an old ship that it was neither maidenly or innocent. In fact, it was haggardly, and haglike, really, the wood of its deck and prow more like driftwood that had been assembled and improvised by the captain as he drifted along: raft first, then canoe, then pontoon, and, in time and with great patience and industry, a seaworthy schooner. How the lookout could settle himself, and his stomach, into the wobbly crow’s nest without raining the contents of his breakfast and lunch down below was an impenetrable mystery in and of itself. Edmund could feel his stomach bucking like a wild horse just upon glimpsing the pendulous mast
“I want to believe…in the goodness…of people,” Edmund said between mouthfuls of retching bile. He leaned over the larboard side, letting go of what little breakfast he had left. When he sat back down— sprawling out beneath his auburn robe—his face was pale, if not slightly greenish, though his human skin would never be so green as Tangleroot. The goblin regarded him with a shrug of her wispy, curlicue eyebrows.
“It earns you nothing but grief,” she said. “Everyone mocks you and you go about as foolish as ever. No one respects you.”
“It hurts no one else but my own ego,” Edmund said, cupping his head between his palms as if it might steady him against the dizzying waves of the sea. The sky was clear, and the ocean was relatively placid, and so he wondered how sickly he might have been in the throes of a tempest at sea.
“It hurts everyone,” Tangleroot said. “If the Master’s Apprentice is not respected, then nothing is respected in this world. And if they do not respect you now, they will not respect you when you become the Master.”
“Then I will give them reasons to respect me,” Edmund vowed, his face darkening momentarily. He half-rose, as if in a vengeance against those who had mocked him in Gran Stone, but then his stomach churned and his body turned seaward and he let go of his last bit of cargo, exhaling in exhaustion and slumping down, half-hanging over the railing of the ship..
“Perhaps if you destroyed a city or two,” Tangleroot said, dragging him back from the railing, “or even a kingdom, then, perhaps, they might respect you. Perhaps you could even bottle your anger inside yourself— funneling all the transgressions and mockeries and the rage thereof— and unleash it like hellfire upon a random city. It would be glorious.”
Edmund’s head lolled wearily, as did his eyes. He looked drunk, but he never drank anything but boiled water and goat milk, as per Master Avon’s counsel. “Glorious to a goblin, perhaps,” he said. “But I should like to court the favor of Man rather than estrange myself to my fellow people. I am one of them, after all.”
“You do not think as if you are one of them,” she said, finally plucking the bone free of her teeth and tossing it overboard. “That is why you are so naive.”

***

Edmund and Tangleroot sat in a rowboat. An oarsman rowed them out from the Maiden Innocence to Paradise Bay. It was an eye-opening vista.
When Master Avon told Edmund that the Apprentice would be needed at Paradise Bay, off the archipelago of the Southerlands, Edmund’s mind conjured vividly golden beaches and sparkling cerulean crystal waters spreading luxuriantly from horizon to horizon while beautiful Southerlander maidens frolicked in the surf, and in various degrees of undress.
But when Edmund and Tangleroot stepped down onto the rowboat and rowed toward Paradise Bay, Edmund’s fantasy decayed and blackened into that brackish swamp adjacent to the backwash of the sea. He should have known it was nothing like its name, for Master Avon said “Paradise Bay” with the same such contemptuous sneer that his bearded lips employed when speaking of braggadocios knights within any court overtaken with the conceits of its own “nobility”. Master Avon often said there was no more powerful illusion than a braggart’s pride, nor a deadlier monster; and none were more prideful than the world’s nobility.
Edmund also wondered why Master Avon insisted that they travel so far by land and sea to arrive in the archipelago. He and Tangleroot had to, firstly, ride horses Southward, then buy passage by boat across the South Seas, whereas Master Avon could have easily punctured and knitted with magical words a portal that opened directly upon the misnamed swampland. No protracted travel plans. No hardtack and fishbones. No three-week escapade of seasickness.
“Why did Master Avon not simply open a portal?” he groaned.
Tangleroot affixed an unsympathetic eye upon the Apprentice. “You could have easily opened a portal yourself,” she observed.
“Too dangerous,” Edmund said. “I am yet too unpracticed.”
“And so you must practice,” she concluded.
“It could unravel the All Ways if I foul it up,” he countered.
“Then you must not be reckless,” she said, “and you must not be cowardly, either. You have to take risks if you are going to grow your powers.”
Of course, even had Edmund opened a portal here the destination would have been just as disappointing. For Edmund it was as if he had expected a hero’s reward of gold and sapphires, but received instead sacks of rotten vegetables and runny refuse.
“We are going to Paradise Bay,” he had said on the ship, innocently, between upset stomachs. “Tell me, how beautiful is it this time of year?”
And the individual to whom Edmund spoke merely said, “As…ahem…beautiful as it always is. Never more, never less. The same.”
And, indeed, as Edmund turned away, smiling wanly in anticipation and illness, he caught a grimace, or a smirk, or a roll of the eyes from the person to whom he had formerly spoken to, and Edmund, being in such a mood, ignored these expressions, or else dismissed them as the visages of envy. What a fool he had been!
Tangleroot saw the disappointment in Edmund’s face and cackled.
“What did you expect?” she said. “Cadizian maidens, buxom and bronzed?”
Edmund muttered something about clear water and sunny shores.
“But there is a fine magic here,” Tangleroot said, her sharply-edged lips puckering upon the air. “Everywhere I can taste the magic of billions of plants and animals and insects, of Life, dissolving together. It is, like a goblin maiden: beautiful and powerful. At least, to those with any sense to see such worth.”
Edmund ignored her self-appraisals, and instead listened to the strokes of the oars upon the water. They became slower and more strained as they approached the island, the oarsman grunting now with each push and pull of the oar in and out of the thickening, darkening water. Edmund directed his mind elsewhere, if only to distract himself from his disappointment, and deduced that this marshy cove was dangerous— dangerous with magic and with life—confirming at least part of Tangleroot’s assertions. Paradise Bay was no paradise for human beings.
***

The rowboat rocked side to side as it drew up parallel with, and struck against, the dock. The dock was made of wood that seemed to sway with the waters. Drizzle fell incessantly, even now, either as a mist or as a heavy rain. It made everything slick and treacherous.

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As Edmund and Tangleroot climbed onto the dock, unsteadily, Edmund realized that the dock was the town. Every ramshackle home and house and hut extended out from this dock, held above water with long poles that dove deep into water and mud, barnacled and stained with floodwaters. So much did the dock, and by extension the town, sway that it was like living on a boat out at sea. Edmund’s stomach lurched and churned all over again, and he had to steady himself with a hand on Tangleroot’s shoulder. The area smelled of the briny sea, but also of stagnated bogs and dead fish. A vortex of odors spiraled within each nostril.
There were several ships chained to the dock, many of which were in equal shape to the Maiden Innocence. They were chained to large iron posts that also served as bulwarks for the dock against the restless sea. Edmund noticed large padlocks clipped to the chains, binding them in place. A group of big, burly men approached him, smelling like low tide. They looked a rough lot. Strong-armed, but bent-backed, tanned bronze, and prematurely balding. The men looked like sailors, in other words, and a few had chains around their necks. Hanging from these chains was a single iron key; a key that matched the locks on the dock.
“Who are you?” the foremost among the group demanded. He was the biggest man there, his snarling lips obscured with a black beard.
“I am the Master’s Apprentice,” Edmund said.
The foremost man glanced back at the other men behind him, dubiously, then shrugged. He forced a smile through his thick black beard.
“And here I was starting to believe we had wasted so much air and time praying to Mathara for a return of our property,” he said.
“Your property?” Edmund asked, confused.
“Our wives,” he said, as if Edmund was a deaf, mute imbecile. “And our children.  The name’s Tomwell. I am a Patriarch of Paradise Bay. I’ve lost six wives to the swamp, and I don’t know how many children. I don’t want to lose more. Don’t really feel like fetching another woman from around the world.”
“Aye!” the men behind him cheered, albeit bitterly.

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Edmund looked to Tangleroot imploringly. He whispered sideways. “Did Master Avon send me here to rescue their wives?”
“I suppose,” Tangleroot said, “but whether from the swamp or from them, I do not know.”
Tomwell came forward to shake Edmund’s hand and pat him on the back. He was bald on his pate, but covered in sweaty hair every inch of his exposed skin. He smiled incessantly, but there was something like unfriendly mockery in such a smile, as if purview to some demeaning joke concerning the Master’s Apprentice. His smile gleamed meanly, much like the iron key that hung around his thick neck.
“It seems the Master did not answer our prayers himself,” Tomwell said, still smiling, “but instead sent his understudy.”
“Master Avon answers no prayers,” Edmund said, knowing now, for certain, that the large man was mocking him. “He informed me that there are problems in this end of the world that need to be reconciled.” His tight brow broke with confusion. “He did not elaborate upon the nature of the problems. He told me only to go. You said your wives have been abducted into the swamp?”
“Yes,” Tomwell said, glancing back at the other seamen as they grinned among one another. “That is what has happened.”
“Do you have any notion who took them?”
“A wily lot, most likely,” Tomwell said, turning a wry eye toward the other seamen once again.
“I need to know more before I can proceed,” Edmund said uncertainly. “Are they of magical means, these abductors?”
“Keena was of magical means abed,” one of the seamen said, chuckling. Another seamen elbowed him in the gut and he fell to silence.
This whole situation seemed oblique— intentionally so—as if Edmund was the butt of someone’s joke. Again, he looked for guidance in this situation, which meant he inevitably looked to Tangleroot. The goblin girl stood at the edge of the dock. She had grown one of her long green fingers into a barbed hook and was dangling it into the sea, trying to catch a fish. Since she was preoccupied, Edmund sighed in hopeless ignorance. It was midday and the dock was balmy with the high noon sun. The stench of the dead vegetation and the briny sea exacerbated his lingering seasickness. He tried to say something, but then dry-heaved, running to the side of the dock and retching out to sea. Tangleroot withdrew her finger-hook just in time to avoid hooking the last bit of his breakfast.
Hunching over, with his hands on his knees, Edmund tried to catch his breath. The seamen laughed freely.
“First time out to sea, eh, boy?” Tomwell said with mock-friendliness. “Most of us went on our first sea voyage when we were but five, just like all trueborn seaman. And we never got sick from the sea’s lovely dance. Our mothers’ wombs were saltwater and always swirling. Our fathers made sure of that, nightly!”
“Aye!” the other men cheered.
“The Master must be mad to send you in his stead,” Tomwell said, scratching his beard with a hairy hand. “Perhaps he has great faith in your intellect.” He rolled his eyes. “Well, I may not be a Master Wizard, but I can tell you, boy, that you won’t last five minutes in that swamp. You would be a bog-wyrm’s lunch before you had a chance to say ‘Dinner is served’.”
Edmund took great umbrage at the sailor’s tone. A flickering flare of fury almost overtook him, but he refrained. Immolating the presumptuous man would not have been becoming of the Master’s Apprentice, nor did his stomach feel in harmony with his humor yet; least not in such a state that it would not hinder such a vengeful spell.
“Then perhaps you would do well to enlighten me to the dangers,” Edmund said. “So I may die from my foolishness rather than my ignorance.”
Tomwell folded his brawny arms across his broad chest. The chained key jingled as his arms enfolded it.
“I suppose I can do that much for you,” he said. “Come into my house and I will tell you all the many deaths that await your scrawny hide in the swamp.”
Edmund gave a curt nod and followed Tomwell into a nearby house. Like the other houses it was connected to the dock, and raised several feet in the air on long, thick posts. The house itself would have been impressive, especially for a humble sailor. It had two storeys, many windows, gutters for the copious rains, and its interior was allotted many amenities procured from all over the world. However, it was stained by rains and rising waters until green and black, mildewed inside and out, and the wainscoting was riddled with colonies of burrowing insects. Snakes inhabited the corners of the house—evidenced by their furtive tails— and birds perched on the windows; the porch, like the doors, were clustered with frogs and toads, lizards and snails, leeches and worms, and whatever other creature crunched underfoot, worshiping the unending drizzle. There were hundreds of different kinds of animals and insects in the house. Who knew how many other undiscovered creatures lurked in the swamp beyond?
Tomwell motioned to a chair at a table. Edmund sat here and Tangleroot, feeling mischievous, sat on his lap.
“Tangle, stop,” he pleaded.
She snorted and stood up, brushing him with her hip as she walked away. She went around the house, catching whatever she could and either playing with it or eating it or both. Tomwell pulled up a chair in front of Edmund, but watched Tangleroot. He seemed fascinated by her behavior, and wistful.
“Your green girl seems at home here,” he said, gruffly. “If only my other wives had been so…ready to change.”
“Tangleroot is a goblin,” Edmund said. “She does not change. She is as every goblin is. Swamps are their homes. They are swampkin.”
Tomwell grunted. “Well, maybe women and goblins need a proper blending. Then we could have pretty women with better appetites. And less complaints.”
“And yet the dangers of a swamp are numerous,” Edmund said. “Dangers legitimize complaints.”
Tomwell’s face darkened. “We keep our women safe here,” he growled. “They have no right to complain about anything, so long as they do as they’re told. A man’s house is his ship, too, of which he is captain, and like a ship if there is a mutiny then the mutineer walks the plank. Or, at the least, gets flogged and thrown in the cargo hold to think about what she’s done.”
Edmund kept a neutral expression— or as neutral as he could with seasickness. “Just tell me of the dangers here,” he said evenly. “The sooner I understand, the sooner I can employ my understanding to help the women and children to freedom.”
Tomwell leaned back in his chair, looking down his nose at Edmund, who was a foot or so shorter than the former. “I will tell you as well as I can,” he said. “It is not the first time I tried to educate a dead man.”
Tomwell explained to Edmund all that he knew about the swamp. In between listing the dangers, and how to avoid them, he also spoke about the amount of wealth he and the other men had invested in Paradise Bay, and how they could not leave, even if they wanted. It was as if he was defending himself and his fellow villagers from unspoken scrutiny. He even became boisterous at one point, raging about prying eyes and “meddlesome dramatists” who embellished the inherent dangers in the area. And, yet, with every other breath he contradicted himself outrightly, enumerating the lethality of the region with ten more species of vipers and a handful of maneating plants.
Meanwhile, Tangleroot continued pilfering the house of its insect and vermin population. The rains fell heavy against the rickety, insect-winnowed walls, like gods sputtering maledictions wetly against the hapless village. The winds were hot and moist when they charged in through the crannies and cracks of that house. When the rains and the winds finally subsided— toward the end of Tomwell’s lecture—the air remained balmy and thick and heavy, as if inhaling kettle steam into the lungs with every single breath.
“And that is as much as I can explain in an hour,” Tomwell concluded. “The truth is that you need a thousand hours to know anything, and even then you will die a fool’s death a thousand times ere you pass through a quarter of the swamp.
“Then I will not waste anymore of your time,” Edmund said, standing up abruptly. “Come, Tangle. We have work to do.”
Tangleroot had been climbing the interior wall, crouching upon it like the treefrogs that clung to it also. She proceeded down the wall immediately, following Edmund out the door. The other seamen stood out there, not at all trying to conceal that they had been eavesdropping on the conversation inside the house. Edmund slipped between their crowd deferentially. Contrarily, Tangleroot grew barbs out of every inch of her flesh and whatever arm or leg or fat flank did not afford her space was scratched as she passed. Several seamen flinched out of her way too late. They grumbled and growled and Tangleroot looked over her shoulder, blowing a kiss and grinning maliciously. Their clothes would need a needle’s mending.
The Apprentice and the goblin girl headed to the rear of the village, toward the dark swamp beyond. There were several poleboats tied to this area of the dock-village. They were not chained like the big ships, but were instead roped to a single post. Edmund untied the top rope and held onto it while Tangleroot climbed down into the boat. Unsteadily, Edmund climbed down himself, all while fighting the boat as it tried to drift toward the darkness of the swamp. Here, the trees did not crowd out the sun, yet only a few yards away the trees made a black-mouthed cave that yawned ominously.
“They despise you,” Tangleroot said. “They despise everyone, to be sure, including themselves. But, verily, they despise you the most.”
“I can see that,” Edmund said quietly.
“They despise you for being young, and for not being tied down in place with your fortunes. They despise you because they are not in your position.”
“And I pity them for their being in their positions,” Edmund lied.
“You are a terrible liar,” Tangleroot said.
The boat, now released, floated toward the swamp, and the swamp closed around them like the mouth of the world.
“Which is why I prefer to speak the truth,” he said. “This place scares me.”

***

The ground that rose and fell in and out of the water was dubious at best. It might sink you to your knees, or swallow you whole. Much of the land was but refuse floating ambiguously upon the water, such as what one might find within a cesspool. And that was because Paradise Bay was the outhouse of the world. The wastes of the sea floated their way here, circumscribing the globe to be pulled here and stagnate, as did the hopes and dreams of the world; all squandered by Man. The bay was fed by alluvial dark magic, and, it seemed to Edmund, such a place fed something else with its squalid excess. Perhaps it was magic harnessed and harvested by a subtle malignant force; subtle while amidst so much deception, fear, and the aggression of a whole swampland teeming with hostile factions of Life; creatures of every dangerous sort. It was a festering, gangrenous wound, invaded by teeming parasites and predators.
Edmund had brought no pole for the poleboat, but he would not have been good at using it anyway. Instead, he let magic steer the boat through that primordial darkness.

“Safety be the measure,
safety be our guide,
as we float along in pleasure;
avoid the danger on each side.”

The boat began to drift along the dark waters. The rhymes were not necessary for a spell to work, but the focus necessary for rhyming perfected the spell in Edmund’s head. That was how he had learned to use magic. It was like what his mother taught him to do when repairing garments and blankets— stitching two seams along a hemline in perfect singsong harmony. He had often spoke rhymes to himself when weaving clothes together. Rhymes helped to distract him from the mockeries and japes from the other squires in Gran Stone.
Shadows dwelled above and below, impenetrable with common sight like a moonless, starless night. But the enchanted boat drifted with purpose, eschewing the muddy banks of islands and the large trees and the perilous reefs that reached up from below like impish claws.
Edmund heard things splashing in the water, and something rocked the boat, as if striking it from below.
“I should probably weave a protection spell, too,” Edmund said as they floated along the swamp, between the trunks of trees that rose high like the pillars of the empyrean.

“Flames encircle our boat
to defend us as we pass—
form a sphere so we may float
unharmed in this dark morass.

A bubble of fire expanded from Edmund’s hands, encircling the Apprentice, Tangleroot, and the boat in a protective sphere of flame. It burned silently, and left those enclosed in it untouched by its heat. Yet, whatever was below the water’s surface floundered away, loudly bursting bubbles marking its retreat. The flaming sphere also lit their way through the dark inner depths of the swamp, the canopies of the trees above like a stygian shield that allowed no sunlight to penetrate its depths.

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The light scared away many creatures, but it also attracted many, too. Frogs leapt into the waters, and were eaten by mouths that opened and closed as quickly as the water in which they dove. Eyes shimmered with the glow of the light, then disappeared into the dark again. Small, beady eyes. Large, rounded eyes. All hungry, those eyes, and all watching the small boat pass.
“How could anyone pass here except by magic?” Edmund wondered aloud. “The kidnappers must be magical, or else they are sailors. They need be to navigate these dangerous waterways.”
“If there were kidnappers,” Tangleroot said.
Edmund turned toward her. “What do you mean?”
She flashed her wicked grin, each gleaming tooth a dagger. “I may not understand humans,” she said. “But I understand women.”
Edmund opened his mouth to expound upon the obvious contradiction in her statement, but was distracted by all of the animals revealed in the illumination of the flames.
Hairy little creatures, similar to rats and pigs, lazed in the water, floating along. Vines entwined the tall black swamp trees, many moving in suspiciously still air while some invited birds and frogs and such things into their nectar-sweet apertures only to close upon them, slowly dissolving them in their strangely veiled bell-jar bellies. Some looked like stockings and some like books. Nor were plants the only living creatures innocent in pretense of make but voracious and deadly in design. The bog-wyrms were here and there lurking, some small and disguised as mossy rocks, and others large as cows and appearing like floating isles in the deeper waters. Edmund eyed them nervously. Life roiled within the refuse of the lands and waters, and most of the teeming animals were inherently hostile. Life demanded that they be hostile so as to survive long enough to breed and perpetuate their misbegotten species.
Edmund looked upon his dangerous surroundings and deemed it no enigma why the men of Paradise Bay should be hard, bitter men. He could almost forgive them their resentments. What he could not forgive, however, was their insistence upon bringing women into this part of the world. Or, worse, children. Had he grown up here he would not have grown up much. The swamp’s dangers were innumerable and diverse. Gran Stone was home to its own share of predators, too—Edmund’s fellow squires who badgered and belittled him mercilessly when he once trained (and failed) to become a knight—yet he survived such straits without many scars, and intact, and now reflected upon his trifling sorrows in the fresh light of the swamp.
Or, as it so happened to be, the dank, stagnant gloom of the swamp, and its occasional will o’ the wisp.
Though the darkness of the canopies were absolute, rain trickled through, spitting down from above and burning up with a chorus of hisses upon Edmund’s fire sphere. It sounded as if a thousand snakes were jeering from the dark.
If surfaces were not black in the swamp, they were green and brown with very little variation between or besides. Things leapt out from that murk, burned away upon his orb of fire. Nasty things, wicked and hungry, or else territorial and intolerant of trespassers. Tangleroot seemed unimpressed by the hostile fauna and flora, but Edmund knew that he would have died a hundred different, terrifying deaths heretofore had he been a mere mortal stumbling through this boggy throat of the world without his powers to aid him, steeped in his own ignorance and naivete. Indeed, sometimes he felt his ignorance about the world was a large dung heap piled all about himself; only he could not see it, and everyone else could.
A bloom of fire here; a flare of incineration there. Tongue, tooth, claw, spike alike all were burnt to ashes upon touching Edmund’s bubble. Small creatures and large whined and roared in agony as their appetites and instincts cast them toward their deaths. Edmund watched the vicious creatures in horror, even so untouched.
“How could anyone survive this place?” he said. “It is a death trap in every direction.”
“Reminds me of home,” Tangleroot quipped. She lounged in the boat, watching the sparks flying off the fiery orb flash here and there, as if watching fireworks in leisure. “It is unlikely any of the children or women survived.” Her legs were crossed as she lay back, one foot kicking idly. “Then again, perhaps it is for the better that they die out here. I would not wish to return to such husbands as what await them. I’d rather marry a bog-wyrm.”
Edmund allotted himself no hope whatsoever in finding a single woman or child alive in that expanse of treachery and violence, nor even their bones for burial. Yet, he persisted through the swamp, lost and grim, going through that violent place if only for the sake of one person, however slim the chances of such a person being alive might have been..
Still, it prompted him to question Master Avon’s insistence that Edmund and Tangleroot take the longhand route rather than opening a portal. It wasted precious time, unless Master Avon thought this all some hopeless cause. Perhaps this really was an exercise in futility. Master Avon enjoyed such lessons. He said they built character, and helped a man stay humble. Yet, it seemed callus in Edmund’s estimation, which Master Avon was not, however much he preached about being reconciled to the cruelties of the cosmos.
To pass the time Edmund preoccupied himself with watching in overawed fascination the blood magic of Evolution. Evolution was one of the first subjects that Master Avon admonished Edmund to study and comprehend. Evolution was strong here, at the end of the world, as it had been at the beginning. It goaded itself unto more and more extreme incarnations, the creatures accelerating each other’s intergenerational changes. Human beings, having colonized this region for only a few generations, were unable to adapt at such a needful pace. Men might compensate their vulnerabilities with technology— with forts and weaponry and fire, as the men of Paradise Bay did—but nothing could hasten them to outstrip, nor even keep apace, with the vortical maelstrom of blood-churning, ebullient life. It was the boggy breeding pen of insects, animals, monsters, and wyrms. Life strove with itself incessantly, without rest and in constant war; with itself and with circumstance. What hope did Man have against such predations?
“I wonder why Master Avon sent me here,” Edmund said as a shadow leapt down from a tree and flared to ashes upon his flaming orb. “To rescue women and children? In all likelihood they are dead. Perhaps he wanted to teach a lesson to me. One of bitterness and hopelessness. Futility and violence. Another cynical confirmation of the cruelties of the universe. I do not know.” He sighed, peering into the horrors of the swamp as they fled or flocked towards them, churning up mud or splashing sluggish water. “This place is vile, loathsome, perilous and perfidious. It is the nasty shadow of the world.”
“As I said,” Tangleroot said, “it reminds me of home. The Unseelie Court.”
“If we do find survivors,” Edmund said, “we must do our best to protect them. And we must be amicable, Tangle. They wil have suffered enough here without your barbed tongue.”
Tangleroot stuck her long tongue out at Edmund. It was not near so long as her nose, but it did roll suggestively. “I think you are just jealous of my tongue,” she said. “You want it all to yourself.”
“I am being serious, Tangle,” he said. “If we do happen to find them we must care for them until we can return them safely to their husbands and fathers.”
Tangleroot’s tongue abruptly withdrew into her mouth. She gawped at Edmund in disbelief. “What makes you think they will wish to return home?”
It was Edmund’s turn to look perplexed. “What do you mean?”
Tangleroot shook her head ruefully. “This is what I mean, Edmund, when I tell you that you are naive. Think about this situation for a moment, and not obscured by what those men at the village have said. What would drive all of the women in a village to spirit away their children into the deadly bowels of this darksome, deadly abode?”
Edmund squinted his eyes, thinking through the situation for the first time. “Are you saying they fled from their husbands?”
Tangleroot smirked knowingly, her sharp lips curdling with amusement beneath her long, sharp nose. She sat up and grinned, gesturing all around the swamp. “Why else would they flee here?”
“It seems like something of a suicide pact to think of it that way,” Edmund said. His head hung heavy with sad, somber, weighty thoughts.
Tangleroot shrugged with disinterest. “Perhaps it is better than what awaits them at home.”
Edmund remembered, then, the heavy iron locks and chains that fastened the ships to the dock, and the keys to those ships which each sailor wore around his neck. It dawned on him that they did not fear solely the theft of their ships, but the flight of their wives and children. They did not fear other pirates— they feared the escape of their families. Tomwell and his fellow captains were men of iron will and iron chains, and they treated their families as an iron nail does the soft thread, pinning it down in place.

***

Many creatures died upon Edmund’s fiery bubble, but none more so rapidly or viciously as the bog-wyrms that squatted and floated and leapt within the swamp. They looked like large bullfrogs, some bigger than boars; all of them bloated as if ready to burst. Yet they were so fast, despite their rotundness. Their mouths, too, were huge and fanged, whereas their heads had no true necks to distinguish head from body and so their faces only seemed to emerge from their swollen bellies, splitting open to engulf whatever prey was happening by, including prey seemingly too large for that gaping gullet.
“Tomwell swore that bog-wyrms were the most dangerous creatures in the swamp,” Edmund said, looking away from another bog-wyrm leaping and burning to ashes upon the fiery sphere.
“He would know,” Tangleroot said lightly. “He has personally lost three sons to them.”

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Edmund shook his head, trying not to think about a child struggling to escape the mouth of a bog-wyrm. He paled and sat down, trembling. Tangleroot spun around in the boat so that they were back-to-back. She steadied him with her spine.
“After losing the first son, why would you remain here?” Edmund wondered aloud. “Why would you not leave and bring your family elsewhere? But he stayed, and so he has lost six wives and twice as many children.”
“Men can be stubborn,” Tangleroot said, picking her long, curved nose idly. “And selfish. Thoughtless, too, especially of the consequences of their actions. Just about every man can be one or the other. A few very bad men can be all three. And it seems to me that the men of Paradise Bay are possessed of all such qualities. I suppose if they had to go through the pangs of birth themselves they might give pause and reconsider their situation.”
The boat suddenly stopped drifting, having come to the end of its present watery path through the swamp. It settled parallel with a lip of spongy earth where moss grew thick, crowned with clusters of mushrooms. A path of luminescent lichen glowed through the darkness, like a path marked for the lost and wayward.
“I suppose we walk from here,” Edmund said. He stood up and, wobbling, stepped ashore. The bubble of fire grew larger, to continue to protect him, Tangleroot, and the boat. “We should see where land leads us.”
“To a trap, most likely,” Tangleroot said. Nonetheless, she stood up, stretching her arms above her head, arching her back, and pushing her breasts out prominently. Edmund looked away, as he always did, and she grinned mischievously. She had no true human breasts. She was a goblin, after all, and thus belonged to the Primordial Elements, for whom childbirth and its functions were neither needful or feasible. Yet, she liked to adorn her body with crude human curves because it disconcerted Edmund’s young teenage mind. She also liked to draw his attention away from her long, hooked nose and tapered ears.
“That lichen there is surely a ploy,” Tangleroot continued to say. “It would lead us to our deaths.”
“True,” Edmund said, “but that also means the women and children may have gone this way. We should follow it and see if…” He could not force himself to say it.
“If they are yet living,” Tangleroot said. “Fine, but I still believe they do not wish to be found. Men like Tomwell would clutch their bones like property, and I know I would not allow such a man any victory, however bitter it might be.”
They walked along the lichen path. The bubble of fire split in two: one staying with the boat and the other keeping in stride with Edmund and Tangleroot, lighting their way. The Apprentice could manage two fire orbs easily enough. Even as the Apprentice he had magic to spare— nearly the whole cosmos, if he needed it. Not that he wanted to use that much. Things would have fallen apart quickly if he tried to use that much of the All Ways at once. Edmund was always hesitant rather than brazen, which was one of the many reasons that Master Avon chose him as his one and only Apprentice.
More bog-wyrms came leaping from the shadows only to burn to cinders on Edmund’s fire spell. Large snakes, too, came slithering out to strike themselves headless against the sphere. Others dangled down from the trees, and weirder things kept at a distance. Some mimicked human speech, like parrots, only their voices were guttural and hissed at the edges of words, vibrating deeply upon thick vocal cords. It reminded him of the roars of the Chimera in the Westerlands. A leonine voice, he thought. Hearing the words made his skin crawl. He shivered and cringed. Tangleroot noticed and grinned devilishly.
“They are the sweet-nothings of the swamp, my dear,” she teased. “So long as you do not fall for the cat’s calls you will be fine.”
“Your swamp was not so dangerous as this one,” Edmund remarked.
Tangleroot shrugged. “Not all swamps are the same. You would do well to remember, though, that when you toured my swamp you were a prisoner under the protection of the Unseelie Court. Had you not had such protection you would have likely run afoul of a deadly bloat-brownie or a hag’s needle-and-spool.”
“All places are dangerous, I suppose,” Edmund conceded. “With or without a ruler to arbitrate life and death.”
“All swamps have rulers, too, my dear,” she said.
“Who rules this swamp, then?”
Tangleroot glanced about the swamp that closed in around them, screwing her lips up in consideration. “The chaos of Life, perhaps. But that is every swamp, methinks.” She folded her arms and puckered her lips and tossed her head left and right as if to ferment her thoughts. “We will see. Give it time. No monarch can ever abide for long someone who traipses so boldly in their land.”
Tangleroot fell to silence and pointed. Ahead of them, along the lichen path, they saw a young woman with a young girl, walking hand-in-hand. They were accompanied by several bog-wyrms, and seemed not only unharmed, but happy—happy until they saw the light from Edmund’s protection spell.
“Men!” the woman cried. She picked up the little girl and ran, fleeing along the lichen path.
“Wait!” Edmund called. “We are here to rescue you!”
The bog-wyrms came hopping toward Edmund and Tangleroot. In quick succession they leapt into the fire barrier and incinerated themselves. The creatures dead, the Apprentice and the goblin girl ran after the young woman and child. They found them farther up the lichen path. The woman had tripped over an exposed root and had fallen down. The little girl was crying and the woman was nearly hysterical.
“We will not go back!” she shrieked. “I would rather die!”
She drew a small knife and held it to her throat.
Edmund whispered a spell beneath his breath:

“Metal, have no mettle,
be not sharp along your blade,
but be as a petal
from a flower made.”

The knife transformed in a flash of light. A moment later the young woman was holding a bouquet of flowers athwart her throat. She gawped at them in disbelief. Edmund and Tangleroot approached slowly now, trying not to spook her. Edmund recalled the fire sphere until it was a small blazing orb in one hand.
“You are a wizard,” the woman said, clutching the sobbing girl to her chest. “Have our husbands paid you to come fetch us back?”
“No one pays me for anything,” Edmund said. “I am the Apprentice. I have come here to help you leave the swamp.”
The woman glanced around as if confused. She had brown hair and wore a dress that was white across the breast, but red on the sleeves and gown. Her right eye was black and knotted from what appeared to be a blow. Seeing this, Edmund remarked upon it.
“You are very lucky to have only a few bruises out here,” he said. “This swamp is deadly. And this little girl…it swells my heart to see a child alive despite all of the ferocious creatures here.”
“Some animals are worse than others,” the woman said, quietly.
Tangleroot cackled lightly, her hands her hips. “I do not doubt it,” she said. “That girl is yours, is she not?”
“I am her mother, yes,” the young woman said warily. “My name is Taliana. My daughter’s name is Alania.”
“Come with us so we may take you someplace safe,” Edmund said.
“No!” she cried. She rose to her feet, the girl in her arms. “I will not return to the village!”
Edmund saw the fear in her face, and heeded it.
“Then we can take you somewhere else,” he said. “On one of the ships when we leave.”
“They will not let me leave,” Taliana said, tears in her eyes, “and they will not let you leave. They do not want their secrets out traveling the world. They would not be able to catch any more women for Braggart’s Bay.”
“Braggart’s Bay?” he repeated.
“It is the name we have given to this terrible place,” Taliana said. “Those among us who have survived long enough to know it for what it is. Not a ‘Paradise’ for women, but a paradise for the sailors that have fooled us into coming here. They…they promised us so much…and it was all…lies…”
She began to sob, joining her tears with her child’s. Edmund glanced around, thinking. He did not know what to do. Tangleroot shrugged, her arms akimbo.
“It is as much as I figured,” she said, snickering. “‘Braggart’s Bay’, hm? That seems as apt as a name could be for this place.”
Shaking his head at Tangleroot’s flippancy, Edmund turned his attention to more dire matters.
“Taliana, are you the only survivors?” he asked. “Are there any others?”
Taliana stared at Edmund for a long time, judging the measure of the young man. He tried to reassure her.
“I promise I only want to help them,” he said.
She nodded timidly. “A few of us escaped here. We have a…a safe haven…along the Path…with the Priestess. She guided us here.”
“I saw the bog-wyrms guiding you, too,” Tangleroot said. “Care to explain that?”
“The bog-wyrms protect us,” Taliana said. “They serve the Priestess, and the Priestess serves Mathara.”
“Oh no,” Tangleroot sighed, “more Matharists.”
“Tangle, please,” Edmund said. “We need to prove to them that we are here to help them.”
“You are not believers?” Taliana asked. “It does not matter to me. I was not a believer, either, not since I was this one’s age.” She kissed her daughter upon the forehead. “But you will see. Mathara protects us. She is our Mother. She is the Mother of all Creation. And she lives here. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Follow me upon the Path and see.”
Taliana set her daughter down and, holding her hand, they followed the glowing lichen farther into the swamp. To see the mother and daughter follow that path so blindly, as the darkness reigned all around them, unnerved Edmund. He used his sphere of fire in his palm to light his own way, not trusting the darkness, the Path, nor the creatures undoubtedly beyond it.
“Please do not walk so far ahead,” he pleaded with her. “Stay back here so you can see where you are going.”
“I do not need to see where I am going,” Taliana said. “I have faith in the Path.”
“I do not like this at all,” Tangleroot remarked.
The air became heavier, hotter, and moister, as if near a hot spring. The ground became softer, spongier, and weirder to his footstep. The trees disappeared and darkness deepened all around them. Yet they followed the Path and, soon, they saw lights up ahead: gentle bluish white lights, such as the glow of jellyfish in the sea. These lights came from what appeared to be crystal rocks that grew out from the sides of the darkness that surrounded them. Upon seeing them, Edmund realized they were stalactite crystals of magical overgrowth; the concentrations of magic, like diamonds forming within deposits of coal. Taliana and her daughter had led them into a gigantic cave in the center of the swamp.
“It is a cave,” Edmund said.
“You would think so, wouldn’t you?” Tangleroot said.
Edmund frowned at her engimatic reply, but had no opportunity to press her on it. Instead, the other women and children came forth from the crystal-lit recesses in the cave. There were two dozen or so of them, and they seemed to come from all over the world. Some had blonde hair and pale skin; others were dark brown with orange hair, and some had cinnamon complexions with dark black hair. Regardless of their color of skin, or style of dress, they were all united in one feature: they were bruised and knotted along their faces and arms. One woman— very pale— wore her husband’s handprints around her neck where he had evidently throttled her in a fit of rage.

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But taking prominence among all of these women and children was a short, squat woman with short, white hair and spiteful eyes. She came forward as if to wallop Edmund with her cane.
“Who brought this man onto these holy grounds?” she demanded in a loud voice.
Alania shrank behind her mother, as did the other children gathered there. Taliana stepped forward, but gave a wary glance over her shoulder at Edmund.
“I…I found them lost in the swamp,” she lied. “I…thought we could help them…”
“Men are not allowed here,” the short woman said, her tone dripping venom. “We all know what evils they perpetrate.”
Tangleroot— being a goblin and, moreover, being herself—eyed the woman shrewdly. “You must be the Priestess,” she said. “I can tell by the way you talk, and how everybody here fears you.”
“They do not fear me,” the Priestess said, eyeing the goblin balefully. “They fear the men that beat them.” She turned her glowering eyes again upon Edmund, the latter of whom was nervously fidgeting in place. “And every man secretly wishes to abuse women. I can see it in this villain’s eyes. He wants to abuse all of us!”
Edmund felt his seasickness returning as his knees wobbled. This was as unfamiliar territory as the sea. He had never been accused of wanting to abuse women before. It made him feel sick to his stomach.
“I would never…never do that!” he exclaimed.
“All men of a certain age would,” the Priestess said, brandishing her cane above her head as if delivering a prophecy. “All men!”
“Not all men…” Edmund began.
“Silence!” the Priestess shouted. “Do not obfuscate the truth with lies!”
Tangleroot clucked her tongue flippantly.
“I wonder what you will do with the boys here when they are of a certain age,” she declared. “Cast them out to let the swamp have them?”
The boys among the women looked up at their mothers, and then to the Priestess. Their eyes were wide with fear.
“Of course not,” the Priestess said. “We are not barbarians.” She lowered her cane, as if realizing just then that it was quite barbaric to brain someone with a heavy wooden stick. “They will join Mathara where she resides, deeper within this cave, as will the girls when they come of age. They will not suffer or know sorrow. This, I know, for I have shepherded many such children before them. All of the children, in fact, that have been lost in the swamp have been led to the salvation that Mathara offers here. And their mothers will join them, too. They will live happily forever, united with Mathara. It is nearly time again for the Great Engendering.”
“How long have you been here?” Edmund asked.
“Since the founding of Braggart’s Bay,” she said, smiling coolly. “I was, in fact, the founder’s wife. The founder, my husband, was a slimy worm of a man named Richard Lickmoore. He was a wanted man in every kingdom. He had no choice but to retire to a place where no king could, or would, follow him. The kings must have concluded that it was punishment enough to live here than to die in their kingdom for his crimes, for they did not follow him here, though he fooled me into doing so.”
Her smooth face reddened lividly in that bluish light of the crystals.
“I have been here since the beginning and that is why I know the evils born in the minds of men. I chose to stay here, with my goddess, so that I may save all of the women and children who have been brought here as victims by men. Braggart’s Bay is only a small corner of the world, but it represents the whole world in all of its inglorious sins. Mathara has kept me alive, as she will everyone who has pledged herself whole-heartedly to the goddess.” She smiled, then, with supercilious victory spreading over her smooth face. “I have lived hundreds of years here, in her safekeeping. I have wanted for nought and needed nought, especially anything offered by men.”
“Hundreds of years in a cave?” Tangleroot scoffed. “No wonder you are insane. You probably hear your own echo and think your goddess is talking to you.”
The Priestess’s knowing smile did not falter. Instead, it broadened.
“You will see,” she said.
She walked to one of the glowing crystals jutting out from the side of the cave’s wall. Reaching a hand toward its faint blue luminescence, she touched it. The crystal faded briefly, then surged with a bright blue intensity. This glow enveloped the Priestess in a blinding light while the crystal rock hummed and pealed. When the light faded again, and the crystal silenced itself, the Priestess ran a hand through her hair, which was now long and golden where it had been short and white. Her skin radiated with a motherly glow.

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“Mathara is a mother too,” she said. “She understands our pain. Our suffering. And through her our children may escape suffering. They become one with Mathara, the All-Mother, for they are welcomed into her loving embrace. All women and children are.” She turned toward Edmund with a disdainful flick of her wrist. “But not you. Men are filth. Men are anathema. They are animals. They do not deserve to exist, and someday she will cleanse them with her fire.”
Edmund looked to Tangleroot yet again, unsure how to proceed.
“Just tell them who you are and why you are here, Ed,” Tangleroot said. “Do not mind her. The madness of magic is strong in her.”
Edmund turned again toward the women, and shrank from the numerous scowls affixed upon him.
“Allow me to explain why I am here,” he said. “I am the Apprentice. Master Avon sent me to Paradise…to Braggart’s Bay to do something. He did not tell me what. When I arrived the men in the village said that they had lost their…wives…” He did not use the original term Tomwell used, property, thinking it prudent not to, but outrage was what he received regardless; outrage and panic and even desperate sobs among the women.
A blonde woman, nearly as forthright in her tone and address as the Priestess, stepped forward. She wore a long green dress with green sleeves. Her left eye was black and swollen, like the knot of a tree.
“I would rather die than return to my husband,” she said, her eye sparking like fire within the contusion that ringed it. “Mathara will protect and preserve us. Our husbands will only beat us.”
“And treat us as slaves,” another woman said.
“And whip us when we do not work hard enough,” another woman said.
“And lie to us a thousand times over,” yet another woman said.
“We were promised servants of our own,” the blonde woman with green sleeves said. “We were to marry into nobility. Or so they said.”
“How very enlightened of you,” Tangleroot remarked.
The woman in green sleeves sneered. “He promised me a life of ease and idle hours, with servants waiting on my beck and call. I just wanted to be the one served instead of being the one that serves others. That blackguard lied to me.”
“I wanted no servants,” another woman said, her skin as white as snow. “I just wanted to leave my clan. They would not let me choose my husband, and I would have been little more than chattel if I had stayed.”
Tangleroot scoffed as mercilessly as before.
“So you were all foolish enough to believe a man’s word,” she retorted. “And now you are bitter about it.”
“We have a right to be,” the angry woman said. “We have been enslaved and abused and treated like breeding cattle!”
“Let us be honest about why you are really angry at men,” Tangleroot said. “You are angry because you were fooled by men, and fooled by foolish men—not wizards or kings or scholars—but by fools, and boastful fools at that, which invites us to speculate as to your own foolishness. There are women the world over fooled by fools, as there are men much the same, and there are a handful who see through such deceptions. And what do they do with such enlightenment? Well, they certainly are not fooled into a long journey to some place called ‘Paradise Bay’. They know better. You have no one to blame but yourselves.”
An eruption of arguments broke out between Tangleroot and the women. The children shrank back together, in a group, trembling like nervous dogs in a pack ready to bolt. Edmund knew how they felt. This was all too much to understand for a simple weaver who had only really known one woman his whole life. And his mother was not complicated in how she thought or what she believed, so he was not prepared for these issues.
Taliana approached him while the others shouted. She stared at the ground timidly and wrung her hands. She looked as if she would cry at any moment. Her daughter, Alania, clutched to her red and white dress.
“Are you okay?” he asked her, seeing that she was afraid.
She looked up at him, and her eyes sparkled with tears. She spoke softly, in a confidential whisper.
“I only wanted to say that I came here because I had no choice,” she said. “I…I never wanted servants. I would have been happy at home, with my mother and father. I miss them. But…I…I left home because the Duke’s son had a fancy for me. And not a gentle fancy. I had been warned by my mother that he had a cruel heart, delighting in plucking a bluejay’s feathers. My childhood friend was not so lucky to leave town as I was. She…she never looked the same after he took her to his castle for a night…”
“I understand,” Edmund said, grimly.
“I worked in different places afterwards, including the port city of Languid Tide. The Duke’s son had sent soldiers to find me. He would not be refused in anything, even if it meant moving heaven and earth. I feared for my life. And then I met Haron. He promised me little but what I wished. And what I wished was freedom. He said he was a captain, and that he could take me to a place called Paradise Bay. I believed him. I saw his ship, and knew nothing about ships, so I thought he must be telling the truth; that he would take me where I could live in contentment. And I was too foolish a girl to see through his lies. But I never had a bad heart, only…inexperience. And ignorance. I just wanted you to know.”
“I, too, am steeped in my own inexperience and ignorance,” Edmund said. “I know how you feel. It makes victims of us all.”
“You took a risk because you were desperate,” Edmund said. “Life makes people desperate, and so people take risks. Sometimes risks bear fruit. Sometimes they bear thorns. Judgment is neither my duty or inclination, and I try to avoid hypocrisy as much as I may..”
Taliana wiped away a tear. “I never wanted anything but freedom.”
Edmund nodded sympathetically. “It is what most women deserve,” he said.
While Taliana’s story disturbed him, something else nagged at Edmund’s mind. He could sense something warping the fabric of reality with its magic, like a millstone weighing upon the seams of the All Ways. Perhaps there really was a goddess dwelling here, drawing the blood magic of the morassy land into itself like a swallowing whirlpool. Perhaps she dwelled deeper in the cave, far in the depths where the light from the crystals and the lichen did not illuminate the Path— farther down where none of these women had ever yet dared to go.
“Silence!” the Priestess demanded loudly, raising her hands until the bickering subsided. This had effect on Tangleroot at all except to provoke her laughter, which, in turn provoked the Priestess’s anger.
“Mathara sleeps here,” she said. “Your petulance is unwelcome here. I will warn you now: Mathara protects us from all intruders, whether they be swamp beast or men or even goblins whose arrogance is dwarfed only by their blasphemous impudence.”
Tangleroot only laughed more loudly.
And then something roared deep within the cave. The women went to their children, clutching them to them and huddling together at the feet of the Priestess. The walls of the cave rumbled and shook as if the earth itself was given to violence and fury. The roar throbbed in Edmund’s brain and made the balmy air vibrate. Even Tangleroot heeded it, falling silent at once.
After a few moments of silence, the Priestess spoke in a very quiet, deliberate tone, her smile small and tight and spiteful.
“I warned you that you would displease Mathara,” she said, gloating. “Yet, she will spare you if you and this man leave our cave immediately, and never return.”
“There is something wrong with this place,” Edmund said. “The magic here…it is like the swamp: hungry, insidious, hostile.”
“Hostile to the Patriarchs,” the Priestess said. “Not to us.”
Edmund reached out with his mind along the woven tapestry of the All Ways. He could sense the waft and weave straining beneath a presence that was massive in physical form and magical heft. It was covetous of its realm, and malevolent toward him. He could sense its thoughts. It told him to leave. It reached out to him with its mind. It taunted him, but there was no mirth in its taunts; only hatefulness.
“The children,” he said, turning to Taliana. “Where do they go when they join Mathara?”
Taliana looked with uncertainty to the Priestess. The latter scowled, and looked toward the further recesses of the cave, where all light faded completely.
“I see,” Edmund said. He began to walk toward the dark recesses, and felt the cave rumble. The women and children cried out. The Priestess screamed and ran toward him, swinging her cane.
“You will not blaspheme this holy place!” she hissed.
Edmund met the stick with his sphere of fire, burning it to a stub in the Priestess’s hand. Dismayed, she gawped at him, briefly, but her incredulity curled into a vindictive snarl.
“You will not ruin this for us!” she vowed. “Mathara will not allow you to!”
By now Edmund had turned his attention away from the Priestess. He was thinking quickly, his heart and mind racing as he tried to conceive of a plan to take all of these women and children away from this place. He had seen something when he burned the Priestess’s cane; something horrific revealed in the flaring illumination. Tangleroot had seen it, too, and she also was stricken to silence by the implications. Nor would Edmund venture farther into that darkness. He valued his life too much.
“We have to leave this place,” he announced. “Quickly.”
“We do not want to go back to our husbands!” the woman in green sleeves said.
“Nor will I take you to them,” he said. “But we need to commandeer one of their ships and leave this island behind.”
“We cannot do that,” another woman said, trembling. “Only they have the keys to unchain their ships.”
“And we are not sailors,” another woman moaned.
“I will handle all of that, too,” he said. “But we must go. Now.”
“Listen to him,” Tangleroot said, grabbing a woman and a child by their wrists and dragging them behind her. “This place is death. Or worse. You must leave.”
“No!” screamed the Priestess, heading them off. “We will not leave! We are the Daughters of Mathara! She protects us! She will not abandon us and we will not abandon her! Nothing awaits us beyond her except men who wish to abuse us! Men who will bind us and control us and own us! And this one here,” she said, pointing an accusatory finger at Edmund, “is just another deceiver! I know him for what he is! He will sell half of you into slavery and keep the other half as his personal harem! All men are the same! They are…”
The Priestess fell to her knees, Tangleroot’s fist in her stomach.
“Tangle,” Edmund said, disapprovingly. “That was not necessary.”
“No,” she said, grinning like a shark, “but it was very satisfying.”
Edmund sighed, then turned to the other women. “You are all in danger,” he said. “We need to go. I give you my word that I will see you safe beyond Braggart’s Bay. I will take all of you wherever you wish to go so you can find a new life for yourselves. But you cannot stay here.”
“You cannot tell us where we may stay or not!” snapped the blonde woman with green sleeves. “We are not going to be told what to do by men anymore!”

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Edmund sighed. He said nothing. Instead, he raised his sphere of fire and tossed it toward the dark, inner recesses of the cave. It floated for a while, following the Path like a will o’ the wisp, buoyant on eddies of air and illuminating a large lake of water that resided toward the deeper parts of the cave. The women watched it, and when it came to a stop they gasped in horror. Bones lay in large heaps among the water, and clustered around those heaps were large, crystalline eggs. Within the eggs incubated bog-wyrms— large amphibians growing round and fat in their glowing blue ovoids. Yet, not all of them were fully realized in the magical transmutation. A few were still vestigially humanoid.
“By Mathara’s breasts!” cried the blonde woman in green sleeves. “What are they?”
“All of these women and children…” Taliana said, as if ready to faint. She shook her head and turned upon the Priestess, screaming. “Look at what you have done to them!”
“I have saved them,” the Priestess said, sneering and beating her chest as she kneeled. “Mathara has saved them. Now they know nothing about the evils of men. They feast on men. They are no longer victims. They are predators, and all men are their prey!”
Another roar shook the cave system, and the creatures within the eggs began to stir. Their eyes opened, flashing yellow and hungrily. They wiggled and writhed, clawing at the crystals that enveloped them.
“We have to leave!” Edmund shouted. He ushered the women and children along the Path, out of the cave. Tangleroot led them, having keen goblin sight. Edmund waited until all were in front of him. The Priestess laughed bitterly.
“I will not leave,” she said. “It is my duty to serve Mathara, and I am happy to serve her in this noble pursuit. So many I have saved! I regret nothing.”
Edmund tried to pull her to her feet, but she clawed at him.
“Go!” she shrieked. “It will not save you!”
“She is bloody daft!” Tangleroot called. “Leave her behind!”
Edmund ran behind the women and children. All around them the cave was shaking and rumbling; shrinking as if to collapse inward. He feared they would not escape in time. He urged them forward, faster, and wove a spell, breathlessly, to protect them.

“Funnel of air, gust of wind,
force this cave open, end to end.”

The winds swirled around them, but did not touch them, focusing instead upward against the roof of the cave, keeping it aloft so it would not fall down. Behind him, and moving with increasingly wakeful speed, came the bog-wyrms. Their squamous bodies hopped along like languid toads, then hastened, leaping farther and faster in their crowding entourage of gnashing teeth and scrambling claws.
The balmy air lessened, slightly, and Edmund could feel, if not see, a sudden widening of space all around them. They had exited the cave, though the bog-wyrms still pursued them. They came to the beginning of the Path. The poleboat was still encircled by the protection spell Edmund had woven around it. He unraveled the rest of it into his palm, alongside the air spell. Then came a more practical problem: the size of the boat.
“The boat is too small for all of us,” Tangleroot said, pointing out the obvious.
“I could make it larger,” Edmund said.
“But the water channels are not large enough for such a boat,” Tangleroot countered. “And the passages twist and turn too serpentinely. We would would run aground and become stuck.”
Edmund was wet with sweat— from the sprint and the stress he now felt— and Tangleroot took him by the shoulders and shook him.
“Edmund, my dear,” she said in a tone of measured patience, “you need to open a portal. It is the only way.”
“But I have only ever opened small portals before,” he said. “And over small distances. I…”
He became distracted by the boisterous approach of the bog-wyrms, all croaking and growling and hissing hatefully. It was not that he feared the bog-wyrms, but that he feared he might accidentally harm someone while wielding his power against the creatures. Opening a portal was to tear a hole through the All Ways and then send people through. If he lost his focus, for even an instant, the puncture wound might seal and entomb them all in a pocket of reality, or else all of reality might tear and come undone. Portals were some of the most dangerous spells to perform.
“No,” he said. “I am not ready.”
He heard the children crying and it discombobulated him with fretful indecision and panic. The horror of the fate that awaited them weighed upon him, especially as he knew that their deliverance all depended upon him. The pressure was too great. His mind was a tornado of doubt.
Tangleroot pinched his arm to wake him up. “To say ‘No’ now, Edmund, is to say ‘Yes’ to Death.”
He gawped at her only for an instant more, then shook his head.
“Okay,” he said. He held his arms up. “Everyone stand back!”
The women and children huddled together behind Tangleroot. To slow down the bog-wyrms, Tangleroot spread her hands and extended her long fingers into the morass, running them like ivy creeper that grabbed and snatched and entangled the horrible hunters.
In the meantime, Edmund took a deep breath and focused his mind on the waft and the weave of the All Ways, searching for the loose seams that could easily be undone and then mended behind them. Sensing a loose seam, he followed it with his mind. It would do, he thought. Now he needed to focus himself with a lilting rhyme at the exclusion of all other distractions.

“Unravel, seam, space within space,
and open the way from place to place.”

A fissure opened within the empty air, revealing a dimension woven with wondrous colors that undulated like restless fabric in the wind. Edmund grabbed hold of the fissure, as if it was not empty space, and stretched it, tearing the All Ways like a cheap piece of cloth until it was large enough for two people to walk through, side by side.
“Hurry,” he said. “Before I lose control.”
The women and children hurried to the portal, mother walking hand-in-hand with child. To their credit, most of them hesitated only briefly before plunging into that rift between spaces. They, too, knew that Death corralled them into the aperture. Last to enter was Tangleroot. She looked thinner now, having sacrificed much of her substance to hold off the bog-wyrms. She winked at Edmund and then entered. Edmund followed her, sealing the portal behind him.
The women and children hurried in the only direction they could move between the wavy pastel colors. Ahead of them was another portal, opening to daylight.
“Keep going,” the blonde with green sleeves said. She had assumed command since the departure of the Priestess, and Edmund was fine with that. He did not want to be in charge, to be honest. He only wanted to focus on keeping the passage open and safely isolated. The fraying of existence would be a markedly bad failure of his Apprenticeship.
They burst through the portal to find themselves on the dock of the village. Edmund was the last to leave the space between spaces and took a moment to seal the opening in the All Ways securely. When he turned around, however, he was faced with the livid scowls of the women of whom he had saved.
“You said you would free us!” the blonde in green sleeves said.
“We are leaving,” he said, “on one of those ships.” He pointed to the large ships that were chained to the thick posts.
There was a ruckus behind him. The men of the village had arrived. They, too, were scowling.
“No one is leaving,” Tomwell said. He gripped the chained key that dangled like a necklace upon his chest. “We have the keys, as it should be.”
“You abused these women,” Edmund said. “It was not right of you…you…savages.”
The men laughed amongst themselves. They had swords in their hands, and spears, and clubs.
“It matters little what you think, boy,” Tomwell said. “Let me give you another lesson, though I fear you will not live long enough to appreciate it. The Patriarchs must be respected, or else civilization collapses. Nothing else matters but Order. Without it, we are a doomed ship sinking into the sea.”
“There are different types of Order,” Edmund said. He raised a hand and one of the ships— the most seaworthy among them— drifted toward the dock. The men gasped to see it move, but Tomwell only snarled.
“We have the power in Paradise Bay,” he said. “No one leaves without our permission, and no one lives without our permission, either.”
The men behind him stepped forward, raising their weapons
“I do not need your keys,” Edmund said. “I have my own power.” He lifted his hands and he spoke words against their weapons:

“Handles serve the hand that grasps
while the blade bites so blood may drip,
but now, handles, bite like angry asps
aflame with venom upon the grip.”

The hiss of the handles sounded like a chorus of snakes and the men screamed, dropping their toxic weapons and clutching their burnt, blistered hands. The weapons continued to seep venom until steel melted and wood caught fire and burned to cinders. It was a potent venom, even in small droplets.
“Get on the rowboats,” Edmund said to the women, “and go to the ship with the mermaid on its prow. I shall free it shortly.”
The women climbed down into the boats, handing the children down to each other, and then began to row toward the ship. The men attempted a rally, but Edmund intensified the spell so that the venom in their hands seeped more profusely and burned more heatedly. The agony was too much for most, except for Tomwell. He rushed forward, balling his bleeding hands into fists and gritting his teeth within his black beard.
“I am going to crush your skull like a toad, boy!” he roared.
Edmund created a dome of air to block Tomwell’s approach and trap him within the vortex. The large man beat at the sphere futilely.
“You think you’re so clever, boy?” he growled. “Well, I’ve suffered greater burns from sailing rope! Put off these womanly charms of witches and hags and fight me like a man!”
Edmund turned his back on Tomwell, waiting for the women to arrive upon the ship. Tomwell mocked him and cursed him and spat. No one, truly, could swear like a sailor. When Edmund heard enough, he shrank the sphere, tightening the airflow around the big man. Tomwell was forced to sit down, hunched over, arms tucked in about his stomach. Yet, he persisted in his foul execrations.
When all of the women were aboard, Edmund and Tangleroot climbed into the last rowboat and rowed out to the ship. Climbing the rope ladder, they came aboard with the women and children. Edmund then turned his attention to the thick iron chain that held the ship fast.

“Iron, unbraid and relax your binding
until your loops loosen, links unwinding.”

The heavy iron chain trembled momentarily, then sagged as if made of jelly. The softening iron fell apart under its own weight and the ship was freed.
The women cheered, their eyes streaming with tears of joy. Edmund sighed in relief, happy he was able to save so many, even if he could not save all of the women and children that had suffered death, or worse, in Braggart’s Bay.

“Eddies of speed, firm and fast;
fill the sails without breaking the mast.”

A great breeze swelled the ship’s sails, puffing their white canvas out like the proud-puffing chest of a rooster. The ship moved among the waves, cutting through them until the sea leveled off to calmness and the ship was briskly on its way Northward. When he knew they were moving too quickly and were too far out to be overtaken, he released the spells that had held the men in check. He could see them, small at the distance, running along the docks and, naturally, trying to get to the rowboats to bring themselves to their ships. There were no rowboats left along the dock, all of them drifting out to sea after having been used and abandoned by the women as they took their children to this ship.
The women saw their former husbands standing along the dock, cursing and swearing and screaming in rage. The women cheered again.
And then there came a great roar that seemed to silence the sea itself.
“What was that?” Edmund whispered.
They all looked toward the thick clusters of trees deeper in the swamp. Thousands of birds took flight at the roar.
“It must be Mathara!” Taliana said, clutching her daughter to her. “She leaves her cave to punish us!”
“She was not within the cave,” Tangleroot said knowingly. “She is the cave.”
The trees bowed, broke, shattered, uprooted, and scattered, exploding outward as if a volcano had erupted. The soft, morassy land buckled and bucked, cratering open and spewing upward like a hemorrhaging wound, the detritus dissolving into airborne mush that churned among the roiling sea. And in the heart of that churning water was revealed a gigantic bog-dragon, its yellow eyes wide with fury and its gigantic mouth gaping as if to swallow the ship whole. It lurched forward, tearing the swampy inlet and bordering land asunder. The men on the dock tried to flee, but there was no place to flee to. The timbers of their village exploded with the passage of the creature, and all of them fell into the violent sea.
“It is a bog-dragon,” Tangleroot said. “I thought as much. It has been sleeping here for millennia, I would wager, collecting alluvium and creatures and growing an island around its nest. They are like toads. They hibernate for centuries and avoid the sunlight. Who knows how long it has been sleeping.”
The bog-dragon’s emergence had sent monstrous waves against the ship, tossing it to one side and dragging it farther away from the dragon, but at the cost of disconcerting the people aboard. Edmund struggled to his feet. His seasickness lurched within his empty stomach and he swayed as if to swoon. He shook his head and took a deep breath, bent over with his hands on his knees. When he had steadied himself, he looked again toward the gigantic beast that pursued them, chasing the ship out to sea.
“Tangle!” Edmund shouted. “Take the women indoors.”
“You have a plan?” she asked.
“Just more of the same,” he sighed. “But bigger, for a bigger problem.”
Tangleroot led the women into the captain’s quarters, scolding them to silence.
“He needs silence, you hens!”
Edmund turned his back to the bog-dragon and focused, instead, on the ship itself. He focused on nothing but the ship, and his spell.

“As a hollow sun, hot only at the outer rim,
become a corona to burn every intrusive limb!”

The spell was like a sunrise around the ship, enveloping it in a sphere of fire. It was much like the sphere he used to pass through the swamp, but a hundred times larger. The brightness blinded the giant beast and it howled in pain, its yellow eyes squinting balefully as it shook with fury. It attempted to rush toward the ship again, but flinched again from the light as Edmund intensified its luminosity, slashing like fulgent blades in a blinding array.

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But the dragon was not fully deterred. It opened its massive mouth, which was like a gaping puncture wound in the light of day, and from this mouth sprang a long tongue not unlike a frog’s. It shot toward the ship, striking the dome of fire that protected it. Where it struck, the dome bent, as if ready to cave. Edmund felt the impact against his magic, and bolstered the point of impact by drawing more magic towards it from the All Ways. The tongue retracted into the cavernous mouth, then shot forth again, striking a different area. The dragon was not stupid. It understood magic. It used magic, if only a crude magic. That was how it created its children, transmuting a human into a bog-wyrm within its womb.
The tongue lashed hatefully at the corona, denting its magical field more and more. Edmund knew his concentration was failing. Things were desperate now. He knew the corona would not last. He had to try something different; something risky.
The bog-dragon’s tongue withdrew, readying for a final strike. Edmund dropped the fiery dome, leaving the ship vulnerable. He then tugged upon the All Ways, splitting it at its seams until a fine rent was opened. The bog-dragon shot its tongue toward the ship and Edmund yanked on the seams, opening a gigantic portal in the spaces between. The dragon’s tongue entered the portal and Edmund wove the portal shut, severing the tongue before it could escape. Greenish-black blood gushed from the torn stump and the bog-dragon howled in pain, thrashing among the waves. While it was distracted, Edmund asserted the wind spell once again and the ship briskly hurried on its way, the bog-dragon disappearing, gradually, over the undulating horizon.
Tangleroot emerged from the captain’s quarters. She glanced around, then grinned.
“You used the portal spell again,” she said.
“Opening doors is important,” Edmund said, humbly, “and needful.”
“Risky, too,” she said. “But sometimes risks pay off.” She looked toward the cabin, all cautiously coming out of the cabin. “And sometimes they cost you.” She looked away from the women and children, turning her attention to the prow of the ship. She frowned, then squinted. She laughed.
“What is so funny?” Edmund asked.
She pointed to the wooden figure upon the prow. “It is not a mermaid, but a siren. How many men has she lured to their deaths?”
“How many women?” he wondered.

***

Gray clouds drifted like a school of whales on the Midland horizon. A thin veil of rain blurred the shadowy hills beneath them. In the far distance the towering slabs of Gran Stone were as a mountain rising among the foothills. The Apprentice and the goblin girl walked along its cobbled road, out toward the fields. Master Avon floated alongside them, sitting with his legs folded and his long white beard trailing beneath him, heedless in the dirt.
She grimaced as she bent over, hoeing the rows for the planting of seeds. She paused, righted herself upwards, hand to her spine while wincing— a woman with green sleeves now a menial, common laborer. When she saw Edmund approach she glowered.
“What have you here?” she demanded. “Have you not done enough?”
Her expression and her tone were brittle and bitter.
“I only wished to see how well you fare,” Edmund said meekly.
“And to reap our gratitude?” she said, snorting. “How should we be grateful that you delivered us from paradise once again into slavery?”
“It would have transformed you into something terrible,” he said.
“Silence!” she shrilled, throwing her hoe to the ground. “Now we are imprisoned by men again. Because of you! And you expect gratitude!”
“I just expected you to be happy,” Edmund said. “Or at least contented.”
“The privilege of your power blinds you,” she snapped.
Tangleroot laughed.
“If you dislike your new life and its toil then return to your goddess. I am sure you will make a lovely bog-wyrm. Or perhaps you should take up arms and become bandits, or conquer your own kingdom with your own slaves. Either way, you will be laboring for a harvest of some kind— whether for crops or blood or your own comeuppance. Such is life.” She grinned wickedly. “The only way out is to take up that hoe and and slit your wrists.”
“If women were in charge…” the woman with green sleeves began.
“Then we would have the same problems as before,” Tangleroot said. “Only more softly spoken decrees of war and execution. Nothing more.”
“We could have a balance,” the woman said, bitter tears flowing along the edges of her healing black eye. “We could have less work and more fairness.”
Again, Tangleroot laughed. “That’s just not how the world works. Ask the ants. Ask the bees. Ask the flowers and the trees. Power is what makes the world turn, and power is never about fairness. You would need an awfully powerful army to enforce such equality, and such an army would invalidate that premise of equality. And if you had such superb people, of either men or women, that they should take up shovel and scythe equally then another army would only conquer them, given time.”
“So what do you suggest, goblin?” the woman demanded.
“Marry a rich nobleman,” the goblin girl said with a wink, “or start conquering. Either way, blood needs to be spilled— by maidenheads or the heads of your enemies.”
Edmund turned to Master Avon, looking distraught.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked. “Master Avon, why did you send me to see to it only now? Why did you not go and change it long ago?”
“Because the women willfully chose,” he said. “I am too old to be patronizing to women. I let people live with the consequences of their actions. And, really, the Master is only needed when things threaten the All Ways.”
“Then why did you send me there?”
“Because you are in sore need of practice,” he said. “You mastered portals, did you not?”
“I am more familiar with them now,” Edmund said.
“And you are now familiar with bog-dragons and their habits, yes?”
“I suppose so,” Edmund said diffidently.
“Then it was worth it to send you.” Master Avon regarded the women coolly, especially the blonde that was arguing with Tangleroot. “And if you happened to save some humans in the exercise…so be it. Though whether you should have saved all of them is debatable.”
“I did not save all of them,” Edmund said. “The men died, and I fear the Priestess likely died, too. Sometimes I think that I did not want either side to survive. The men abused these women, and the Priestess took advantage of the women as well. Yet, I feel like I am somehow the villain in the story.”
Master Avon shrugged.
“There are no heroes or villains where humans are concerned,” he said. “Some men will abuse women for their ends, and some women will abuse women for their own ends. Not acknowledging either allows the abuse to continue. But abuse is part of the natural order of the All Ways. This is a world of victimizing victims. You do not need to concern yourself with details, only with the balance of the All Ways. It’s structural integrity is all that matters to you.” The Master started to float back toward Gran Stone, heading into the drizzle. The raindrops parted around him, almost apologetically. His voice reached Edmund across the broadening distance.
“Do not become distracted with the particulars,” he said. “Even the human particulars. You will never resolve their problems. Humans are defined by their problems, and even if you were remove all such problems they would find others, or else fail as a species. Problems are innate and problems are necessary. Let them have at it themselves.”
Edmund sighed, his shoulders slumping with defeat. Nothing felt like a victory for him. Ambivalence reigned supreme in the midday gloom.
Taliana approached Edmund, her hoe leaning on her shoulder. Taliana looked in earnest and Edmund feared she would berate him as well. Instead, she reached for his hand and clasped it firmly.
“Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much, Apprentice. It is a good life, here. The work is hard, but fair. But it is my work, and it is my life.”
Edmund was too surprised to say anything at first. He sputtered. “Thank you, too,” he said.
Her eyes went wide with surprise. “Why do you thank me?” she said.
“For letting me feel like I could do someone some good,” he said.
Taliana smiled and then looked at the clouds as they neared. “This is a good place. The soil and the rains are generous. More importantly, I need not fear a Duke’s son here.” A troubled look crossed her face. “Do I?”
Edmund shrugged. “I do not believe so,” he said. “The aristocracy here is too arrogant to condescend to abuse commoners. It is considered…beneath them.”
Taliana pushed a strand of black hair behind her ear. “Good,” she said. “I would rather they not look at me at all.”
“You are under the Master’s protection also,” Edmund said. “So even if they did look at you, you would have little to fear, I think. You need only tell me or Tangleroot and we will handle it.”
She nodded pensively, staring out at the clouds. “It will rain soon.” She took hold of her hoe and began to work again. “This is good, too. It will loosen the soil and make it easier to till.”
Edmund said goodbye to Taliana and then headed toward Gran Stone. Unlike Master Avon, he let the drizzle fall upon his brow. It was refreshing.
Tangleroot left the furious blonde woman behind, joining Edmund.
“Not all of them are grateful,” Tangleroot said. “But if they do not like it here, they are free to leave, but they won’t because they are cowards and wish to blame others for their problems.”
“That is easy to say for a goblin girl,” Edmund remarked. “You have power. Many of these women have no such natural gifts.”
“They have pretty faces,” she said, crinkling her long nose. “That can amount to a lot.”
“It has its own hazards, too,” Edmund said.
“As does everything in life,” she countered.
Edmund let the argument fall to the wayside.
“I just wish I could have saved all of them,” Edmund said. “The Priestess and the women and the children that had been changed, and even Tomwell and the men.”
“Why?” Tangleroot said, crinkling her long nose in distaste. “The Priestess and the men were both two sides of a filthy gildread coin.”
“Yes, but I am not supposed to take sides when it comes to human life,” Edmund said. “I am the Apprentice. Someday I will be the Master and I must be impartial where…human complications exist.”
“Then be impartial,” she said, “except where it comes to your defense. You should always take your own side, Edmund. No one else is going to. They resent you too much.”
Edmund tried to let the regrets wash away from him in the rain, but they clung to him worse than morassy mud. Sometimes he wondered if he would ever be ready to become the Master. Sometimes he wondered if he should ever really want to.

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Edmund, The Apprentice

 

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Tangleroot, The Goblin Girl

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