The scent of blood drew her. She had been sitting on a tussock surrounded by the buzz and chirp of evening swamp-song, watching the mottled reds and oranges of sunset, when a hint of iron floated by on the cooling breeze. Curious, she slid into the water and followed.
A small island of land was hidden away among the reeds, and to it clung a tree, half-dead and sun-bleached. The massive roots burrowed like splayed fingers into the mud, and a dark ring stained the brittle wood where the stale water touched it. Through the screen of reeds, she saw him huddled against the trunk. A man. She thought he might already be dead, but he curled up tighter, ribs heaving. Mud and algae had soiled his clothing, and his arms cradled his chest and soft vitals. He must be bleeding there.
There were snakes in the swamp, longer than five men were tall. When they slithered across the waters, it looked like wind playing in the reeds. But if a snake had caught him, he would be dead, wrapped in scaly coils and dragged into the water to drown, disappearing into the chasm of an unhinged, scarlet mouth.
She cut through the dark water to the shore, silently and leaving no ripples in her wake. The water tasted of his blood.
The greatest danger of the swamp was a mere buzz in the air. Tiny flies crawling into eyes and ears, or gnats with venomous bites, and the bloated bodies of their victims floated through the reeds until the fish and birds picked them away to nothing, and the bones sank into the muck. The man’s skin was dark, but it wasn’t veined black or red. It wasn’t the swamp that had harmed him.
When the man looked up, he scrambled back. A useless gesture of fear. The tree was at his back, and she now blocked his path into the water. His arms shifted, and she caught a glimpse of crimson on his shirt.
“Let me see,” she said.
His drawn face smoothed in shock. He hadn’t expected her to speak.
“Your wound,” she said, nodding to it. “Let me see.”
He cautiously drew his arms away to reveal torn fabric and a red slash of open flesh. It was the mark of a weapon, a wound by men. Their bodies came into the swamps sometimes, already dead and cut apart by their own kind. They floated, eyes wide to the sky, until the mud and water mercifully embraced them. The people of the swamp kept away.
“You fled here,” she said, and he nodded. “From whom?”
“Thieves.” His head sagged back against the whitened bark.
It was curiosity that drew her out of the murky waters onto his small island. Curiosity and the assurance he couldn’t harm her. He was in her territory, weak and wounded, and he shrank away from her. Even great bears were powerless and terrified in the deep waters and maze of reeds. The strongest predators on dry land were helpless here. The swamp ate them and swallowed their bones.
“What did they want?” she asked.
“Anything. Everything,” he said with a hollow laugh. “I was traveling. They took my supplies, but it wasn’t enough. They were angry I didn’t have more and tried to kill me. So, I ran.”
She watched him with unblinking eyes. “If it’s valuables you’re worried about, you’re safe here. The swamp wants only your life.”
He pulled his knees to his chest and hugged himself again. His gaze kept flickering to her, trying to watch her, trying not to stare, and he finally asked the question she had felt him holding back. “What are you? I mean, who. Who are you?”
“Rsska,” she said, and he winced slightly at her hiss. “That is the who. As for the what, we are the people of the swamp, just as you are the people of the land.”
He examined her openly now, her stringy hair and webbed hands, her thick skin and bare body.
“I didn’t know there were people in the swamps,” he said at last.
The darkness of night had fallen. Frogs creaked and groaned in the reeds. Rsska pointed to scattered flames dotted the swamp, flickering behind the tall reeds. “Those are our fires,” she said. “Have people on land not seen them?”
His face twisted into a crooked smile. “We have, but we call them marsh lights. And legend says they are fires set by false spirits to lure us to our deaths.”
She laughed, a short barking laugh. “Land people are smarter than they look.”
His mouth stayed curled into a smile. “Have you seen land people before?”
“Yes. Sometimes.” She looked away. Never alive, but she stayed silent.
“It might amuse you then to know that we also have names. And mine is Erkin.”
“Your kind are killers,” she said calmly.
His dark eyes met her yellow ones in silence.
“Yes,” he said finally. “Some of us are. And some of us are killed.”
Rsska examined him before she reached into the water and scooped up a dripping mass of black mud with one webbed hand. She had thought she might let him die, there on the small island. There had been a strange thrill in the way he cowered in the shadow she cast in the last red rays of the setting sun.
“It will seal the wound,” she said as he tried to pull away from her.
He let her fill the gash with the black muck, groaning through gritted teeth. It took three more handfuls before she was satisfied. The mud would dry, solid and hard as rock.
“Thank you,” Erkin said softly when she had retreated to the water’s edge.
“Will you go back?”
“I have to. I’m not…” He looked out at the murmuring swamp, dim in the moonlight, and wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m not like you. I can’t live here.”
Rsska nodded. His skin was soft and thin, his eyes clear. He was made for open air and long distances, not murky waters. “In the morning, I will take you to the shores where it is safe.”
His dark eyes were almost black in the starlight. “Why are you helping me?”
To the south, the swamp joined the forest. The trees stood in silent rows over a floor of plant-coated water. Eventually it turned to mud, the reeds to open fields, and the water to clear rivers. Rsska longed to explore the lands beyond the boundary of the swamp, but her skin dried and cracked without water. She was naked without reeds to hide her, and terror and hunger drove her back to the mud. Erkin covered his nakedness with clothing, but the swamps would rot any coverings she wore. The waters were her garments.
“Will you tell me of your life?” she asked. “Of the places on dry land?”
They lay under the flickering stars, he tucked between the tree roots, she submerged in the water with only her face showing. He told her of grassy plains stretching beyond the horizon, of forests towering into the clouds, of rushing rivers and great oceans with waters that tasted of salt. He told her of the vessels of hewn trees that sailed the open waters, and she thought with coldness of when they might do the same with her waters. He told her of wars and devastation and the divisions of men. His voice lulled her into bizarre, half-waking dreams until he fell silent, and she realized he was asleep. Around them, frogs chirped, and the wind whispered through the reeds.
Rsska woke once when the moon had arced through the sky to the horizon. Silver light glinted on the rippling water. A blunt head had appeared at the edge of the reeds, quiet and still. Its tongue flickered out, tasting the water. Her fingers dug a sharp rock out of the mud and clutched it, knowing the snake would taste her willingness to fight. Her skin was harder to pierce.
She could maneuver faster, drag it to the depths, bloodying it with her crude weapon. After a moment, the snake turned and slithered into the night. She let the rock slip from her fingers. Erkin was snoring, an arm across his wounded waist, and she fell into an uneasy sleep.
The sun had crept into the sky when she woke to Erkin splashing, washing the dried and cracking mud from his waist. The wound had closed into a jagged red line. Rsska dove into the waters to pull up roots and showed him how to strip the tender core from the sinewy reeds with his teeth. From his expression, he found them tough and distasteful, but he didn’t complain.
“I came from that way,” he told her, pointing toward a patch of bent and broken reeds. His path had been forceful and clumsy. It was a wonder she had been the first to find him.
“Then we will go that way,” Rsska said, looking in the opposite direction. “But they will smell you in the waters. We must move quickly.”
He swam awkwardly, laboriously, his limbs tangling in the plants. Rsska slowed her pace to his. It was impossible to see through his clumsy splashing and jerking. She took mouthfuls of water, running it over her tongue to taste for snakes and other creatures that might harm him, but his scent was overpowering, his presence and noise oppressive. Their journey followed a meandering path between the small oases, submerged trees or clumps of land, where he could rest.
It was with relief that she emerged from the reeds. Open water, the beginnings of a river, stretched between them and the bank. The forest lay beyond, green and vibrant in the sunlight. Rsska had brought him where the water ran deep to the shore and he wouldn’t have to struggle through mud. They were halfway across the open water when Erkin lunged at her.
She barely had time for a gasping breath before he shoved her head beneath the water and pushed her down toward the black sediment. She writhed against his hard grip, panicked. He was trying to drag her farther down. She twisted away, but his hand closed around her wrist, yanking her to him. He was shaking his head, his eyes open and blind in the dark water. His clenched mouth opened, and bubbles flooded out. Through their rush, she heard the word that made her blood run cold.
The surface of the water glimmered faintly above her. Her eyes were not made for open spaces, and if men had been on the bank, she would not have been able to see them. Erkin was struggling to stay below, his head bent and arms working against the water that tried to shove him upward. His stomach spasmed, and in horror, Rsska realized he was running out of air. In his struggle to keep out of sight, he had spent too much.
The people of dry land killed each other without hesitation; she didn’t doubt they would do worse to her. She hesitated a moment between the safety of the tangled reeds and the open water. If they surfaced, they would be seen. She could evade them, disappear into the swamp, but Erkin was slow and clumsy and wounded.
She grabbed his shirt and pulled him toward the reeds. His body jerked with a strange guttural sound in his throat. Any moment, his urge to take a breath would overtake his will to hold it. She glanced toward the dark wall of safety before she turned back to him, gripping him by the back of the neck and pressing her mouth to his. He gasped against her, his chest swelling with air. She felt the draw from her supply, but it would be enough. His hand touched her cheek. She pulled away, leading him through the darkness back to safety.
He burst out of the water, gasping and puffing like a bear. Rsska parted the reeds and peered toward the shore, blinking and squinting. There were vague blurs on the swathe of green. They might be trees, or they might be men.
Erkin was grinning beside her. “Do people of the swamp kiss?”
She hissed disgustedly. Her heart was pounding in fear, her ears ringing. “You will need to lead,” she said. “I cannot see.”
They stayed behind the veil of the reeds, following the curve of the shore until Erkin said the banks were clear, and they again crossed the open waters. The sun had passed its peak in the sky, and Erkin dragged himself, exhausted, onto the grassy bank. Water ran red from his wound.
“You need more mud,” Rsska said, reaching for him, but he caught her hand.
“I know the forest. There are herbs here that will do just as well.”
Reluctantly, she pulled back and sank into the water. He sat on the bank and looked down at her. “You could come with me. See the places I told you of.”
She reached out and touched his arm. His skin was streaked black and green, his palms wrinkled. “The water eats away at you. The air does the same to me.”
She watched him expectantly. The world beyond her shores was his, its ways, abilities, and mysteries his domain. He stood and shook her waters from himself, standing comfortably on the shore and looking out over the vast swamp. “I’ll come see you then. But how will I find you?”
“You only have to get into the water. I’ll hear your crashing a league away.”
He laughed and bent down to take her hand, hard and scaly in his soft dark one. “Until we meet again then, Rsska.”
With a final look at her, he limped across the bank into the trees, leaving her alone in the water at the edge of her world. She watched him go with one hand, fingers aching, clutching the tender, green grass.