The furious sounds of a chained animal fighting her bindings started up as soon as I touched the doorknob. I opened the door, the chain links rattled, and the large wooden board with the three holes in it, one for her neck and one for each of her wrists, slammed repeatedly against the brick wall. But her efforts amounted to nothing except making sparks fly and tiny wood chips and specks of sawdust glue themselves to her sweat, born of frustration and anger.
Her eyes, her non-human eyes of fiery rage lit the room crimson. But when they saw me they were unable to suppress the joy she felt at my entrance, and blue flickers moved across them. Not because she had been standing upright with her neck and wrists caught in the unmerciful grip of the board for five hours, unable to sit, unable to eat or drink, but because she truly missed me. She would always tell me that I was cruel and hard, and loved me ever more dearly when I proved her right.
"Wolf!" she snarled, revealing her teeth. Where a human woman will have twin rows of evenly shaped ivory, she had incisors like needles, and long, sharp fangs that could easily rip out a jugular vein. "You evil swine! Release me! Now!"
I went over to my prisoner and looked down at her. I had had something to tell her, but the sight of her naked, struggling body forced it from my mind. She was a small, ferocious animal. Less than five feet tall she was a head and then some shorter than me. Her shoulders were slim and her neck delicate; she was a slender, petite woman. Her olive skin was sleek and perfect, and possessed an inner glow that also added to her strange attractiveness.
But it was not the skin that immediately drew a man's eye. Her breasts were that of a larger woman's, firm and full, and with tender nipples. But if a man saw her back instead of a front he would have seen a pair of hips and buttocks that rivaled her breasts, inviting him to put his hands on them and feel the soft touch of desire as they swayed seductively in front of his loins.
I shook my head and sought her lips instead. When she closed her mouth and hid her teeth they looked like that of a pouting courtesan. As our faces met I felt as if I was swept up into a raging sea, for so passionate was she when she kissed. Even when she was furious with me like now, she would never, could never, deny me her lips.
Her face was one that was hard to describe other than that of a Goddess of the strongest emotion. Expressive, dark eyebrows and the longest lashes I had ever seen, framed the fiery pools of flame. Her snub nose was cute but could, like now, flare dangerously. In the same fashion her dimples could both charm me utterly as well as redden as her temper rose marvelously, and it often did so.
I patted her hair lovingly. It was jet black, straight and with a sheen to it that made it look lustrous no matter its condition. When I had met her she had slashed it short with her strong and sharp nails, but now I refused her permission to cut it. And, like her teeth and claws, it grew far faster than that of a human. In the three months we had been together it had grown almost five inches, and now it fell nearly to her shoulders.
She was a hellcat, a vicious creature of the deep forest, and she had willingly accepted to surrender her body and soul to me. It is said that it is impossible to tame a hellcat, but I had decided to try. Not so much as for the challenge, which it was, or the desire for dominance and mastery, which I felt, but because it was necessary.
"Release me," she repeated, shaking her head and, by virtue of the wooden board, her entire upper body. "I need to visit the latrine, I am hungry, and I am beginning to get cramps!"
"It depends," I repeated, my hand once more finding the tresses of her hair. She could not deny me.
"On what, exactly? On what!?"
"If you have learned your lesson, Rainbow." It was her flickering eyes that had prompted me to give her that name.
"Damn you! Why do you care about that pig?"
"Ah, good. You remember, at least."
"Yes, yes," she rolled her eyes and gnashed her teeth. "I shall not take and eat animals that do not belong to me. Yes, yes."
"That is correct," I smiled. "But have you truly learned it?"
"Yes! I have learned that I am not allowed to hunt what I want! I want to hunt my own meat and I want my meat fresh! I have learned that I have to be stuck inside this damn tiny room with this useless kitchen where you burn meat and these idiotic table and chairs or what you choose to call them, and that repulsing mattress to sleep on, and a bloody, stinking latrine down the hall! And why? Because of my race! Because you big, useless humans fear me!"
I stopped and looked down. This was the true heart of the issue. Rainbow hated the city. She truly detested it. It broke my heart to have to punish her whenever she just followed her nature. But as long as we lived in Oganzar, I had to do it for her own safety. Hellcats were known to eat humans on occasion, and they had been demonized in all countries bordering the vast forests where they lived.
"Listen, Rainbow," I sighed, the fun of my little game vanished. Untying the string that bound the two pieces of wood that made up the board, I freed her. "I don't want to force you to adapt to the city. You can go back to the forest again, if you want. You can be free and wild again, and eat fresh meat. You can sleep under the open sky, and roam wherever fancy takes you. I would love to come with you, but I have a mission that forbids me. You know that."
She stared at me for a moment, massaging neck and wrists. Then, without a word, she put on the hooded, brown robe she had to wear whenever she went outside the room, and left. Five minutes later she came back, and threw the robe on the floor.
Her flaming red eyes found mine, and angry tears sizzled into oblivion. "You filthy scum, Wolf! Don't you even dare suggest such a thing! Leave? Me? After I have gone through three bloody months of misery!?"
Her hands clasped and unclasped in unconscious violence, and she continued: "I will stand by you on this mission! I will steal and murder for you! I will be trained in every way you choose fit! I will crawl to hell and back for you! And if you do not think that I will be true to my choice, that I wish it otherwise..."
She did not finish the sentence, but the light that flared in her eyes was so intense that I could hardly even see her face. All of the room was bathed in crimson light, and any who looked through the tiny window would surely have to wonder.
"I am sorry," I mumbled. "I just ... Well ... I don't want to keep happiness away from you."
"I will have to wait and work to find true happiness, it seems," she said, calming down a little. But her now protruding jaw still quivered with emotion at a point next to my nipples. "But I will find it with you. You understand that, you maggot!?"
"One day I will have to do something about your swearing," I smiled, feeling a small amount of consolation.
She arched one eyebrow.
"But not tonight!" I laughed and extended a hand.
She took it, and we kissed once more. Her dangerous body, wiry underneath its soft exterior, capable of stealth and athletic endeavors far beyond me, it melted against me, her lips upturned and her eyes closed in silent tenderness.
"What do we do tonight then?" she asked me gruffly when we parted. "Before you use that damn manhood of yours to pierce me into oblivion, I mean. Being caught in the board sure tickles me inside, and I have had four hours to work up a frustration that will take you at least four hours of hard work to release! You owe me!"
"Maybe I do," I smiled. I wouldn't mind releasing some of that frustration of hers right there and then, and my erect, needy member strained against my greenskin pants. But I had begun to get to know Rainbow by now, and knew from experience that she was aching to go outside, more badly than she would ever admit even to herself. It had not been foggy in Oganzar for a week, an unprecedented occurrence due to the dry weather we had experienced recently.
"Am I repaid," I grinned at her, having just remembered the news I had returned to tell her in the first place, "if I say that I may just have picked up a clue, a most interesting piece of information that can finally get us out of this miserable existence as no-good, self-righteous thieves?"
"You are not a thief!" she said, sitting down demonstratively on the floor as I coaxed our small stove into life with some wood chips and lighter-bark. "You are of the Order of Ulv, and you are fighting a war!"
"Call it what you like," I smiled at her willingness to come to my defense even against myself, as I put some logs into the stove. There was the pan, and there was the raw bacon of the small pig Rainbow had killed, slaughtered, and carved. She had saved the best parts for me. I deplored punishing her, but I knew that somewhere here in the city there was a family that had been feeding this pig, just like other poor folks would do. "Robbing henchmen of sorcerers that we suspect are associated with the Black Circle and Iron Hammer is not what I call fighting a war."
"The Iron Hammer destroyed your Order! You are the only one left!" Sitting cross-legged she waved the meaty bone she was gnawing agitatedly in the air. "They took your home town of Maurur and burnt it! I know, I was part of the invasion. And now we hear news of how they betrayed my people. I have a grudge against them as well!"
"The Black Circle thrive on treachery, and of course that affects their military arm." I let the bacon sizzle in the pan while I put some bread and cheese on my plate and found a small goblet which I filled with cheap wine from a jar. "Refuse to call it petty theft if you like, but I want to truly strike against them, hurt them, instead of us being just a couple of red numbers in their account books."
"Yes!" she exclaimed, giving me a vicious, fanged war grin, the violet of battle lust in her eyes. "What did you learn, Wolf?"
"I think," I said slowly as I heaped the cooked, fatty meat on my plate, "that I know the path of the Dream Lily."
As we stepped out of the low, squat building where we rented our little room, the night had already fallen on eerie Oganzar. I wore long, blue pants, a light beige shirt, and dark beige cloak, while Rainbow wore her brown, hooded robe. Our garments, like most others in the city, was of the water-repellent, tough greenskin plant.
It was, along with properly waxed leather boots, absolutely required in Bog City. Oganzar was a flat, fertile land where it rained almost seven days a week, and where three rivers met in a large delta. The city was a huge, sprawling place, made from hundreds of islands that were created and destroyed by the water.
All around these isles there were thousands of streams, pools, marshes, swamps, fens, filled with a chaos of low trees and tall reeds, thick bushes and flowers of every shape and size known to man, all with slimy, watery, tough roots. Here lived, in addition to ten thousand human souls, tall-legged wading birds, sleek-furred web-pawed mammals, long, sharp-toothed fish, and snakes, toads, worms, salamanders, frogs, and lots and lots of flies.
Oganzar was not the place to live for the frail of health. It was said there lived one kind of people in this city, namely those who survived all the different sicknesses. Rainbow was feeling well right now, but had suffered from things I could not even begin to guess at. But, as was also said, once you got through your first half year in Oganzar you were only down with the fever one day out of three.
Me? For some reason, after the fall of Maurur, I had never been ill, never so much as a sneeze. I also healed far faster than should be possible. A nasty arrow wound in my side had taken me two or three days to heal completely from. I had not idea why, but I did not complain.
The island our red-bricked one-story building stood on, as well as five others, was currently sinking into the bog. Soon one of the other buildings would have to be knocked down before the dirty water rose up over the floor. Then either the bricks would be used to build a tall foundation for a new building, or ferried away on a pram somewhere else in the city. Stone was scarce in Oganzar.
We sloshed through the bog towards our little boat, an old, gray slender twelve-footer. Everyone in Oganzar had their own boat, as walking any great distance was both tiring and potentially dangerous. If you were unlucky you might suddenly feel the mud suddenly grip your foot and refuse to let go.
Before we set off I wrapped the remaining meat, both raw and cooked, in the wide leaves of a plant known to preserve food, and put it in the boat. Next to it I put a stoppered jug of wine. Oganzar had to be the one place in the world where the lack of any fresh water made it more expensive than wine. Then I looked up at the Spire, the pointed, iron structure with its blazing lamp far away.
Between the Carosian Highlands in the west and the ocean to the east the ground's altitude varied no more than, say, ten feet. But there were so many tiny hills and low trees that getting lost and disappear in the vast bog was a very real possibility, as the landscape would often be covered by fog for days upon end. Then the Spire, the only guideline a traveler had, was completely invisible.
Like a show of defiance from the gods of the bedrock the Cliff emerged from the ocean some hundred feet from where it was generally agreed the shore was. It was the only solid stone east of the Highlands, and was barely large enough to contain the black fortress of Oganzar, nicknamed the Spire because of its slender top, as well as the harbor that was so vital to the city's survival. So vital that a channel of deep water was laboriously maintained from the open sea and in towards the Cliff.
The Cliff was, in lack of anywhere else, the city center of Oganzar. Here the merchants worked and lived, and here the warehouses and inns were. The poorer people who worked in the harbor clustered on the dreary hillocks on the mainland, walking to and fro on the causeway that had been built in years past.
We lived some distance from the Cliff, and had to travel by boat to get there. I sat down by the oars, while Rainbow took hold of the tiller. It was precision work to navigate the narrow channels, but the hellcat was a natural helmswoman. She sat in the stern and grinned impishly at me, the blue light shining faintly in the early night. This was the real Rainbow. The furious, angry beast trapped inside was gone. As the foul-smelling marsh wind caressed her hood it brought forth a smile that tickled my own lips.
Here and there we met other boats filled with coughing, sneezing people heading home from work. There were people living everywhere, though not as close together as they would in any other city, and the channel was even lined by gardens some places. Soon it would be completely dark, and we had to find the Double Tree before then. In the gray light the trees and other vegetation that lined the narrow channel we followed seemed strangely blurry and indistinct. Thankfully it was no fog and we could now and then see the light of the Spire far away on our left.
One of the boats we met was manned by two dirty, unkempt men. One of them rowed erratically, and the other steered their vessel so badly that they kept getting it caught in the tussocks on every side of the channel we followed. They were very angry, shouting at each other, and threatened the boats that they met. I knew what ailed them: The Dream Lily.
Oganzar was a city and land which specialized itself in growing exotic plants of all kinds, magical and not: From remedies for most of the diseases the city was home to, and mystical ingredients for the occult works of sorcerers and priests, to the finest, most sought after, spices in the world and useful plants like greenskin. This was the only reason people wanted to live in this hellhole. But the incredibly varied botany also provided the inhabitants with certain herbs that gave them alternately sweet dreams and horrible nightmares.
Some of these drugs were more or less benign, if that can be said, making people mostly drowsy, lazy, and happy. Others turned their victims into living zombies in the macabre dens located off the Cliff, their presence not tolerated by the Captain of the Spire.
But the Dream Lily was something else entirely. It was certainly a drug, and made its addicts confused, withdrawn, and dreamy. In addition it also caused a smoldering aggression and unnatural cruelty, an uncommon side effect. The main difference, though, was that the drug caused a religion.
"Bow before the chosen of Uzar, the Lord of Dreams!" one of them slurred as we slowly closed in on them. The cult of the dread, decaying God that promised heavenly ecstasy and drug-induced wild abandon had gotten a solid foothold in the city from some time before we had arrived here.
The Lord of Dreams was a deity revered among the secretive Black Circle, that collection of monstrous sorcerers and other dark beings, for his powers in causing madness and obsessions. Many a clear-headed enemy of a Circle member had leaped in insanity from his battlements after succumbing to the manipulations of Uzar's followers.
In Oganzar he had been known from before, but now as the large, pale flower called the Dream Lily had come to invade the minds of more and more people, he was the new terror of the swamps. Someone would take his boat out one morning to work in some distant field, and then days later it would be sold cheaply in the harbor by the Cliff, the owner probably lying face down in the swamp somewhere.
And the raving followers of Uzar only went after the poor, avoiding the persecution of the Captain, the merchants, and the scholar-sorcerers that dwelt in Oganzar. They would hold their sermons far away from the Cliff, where they preached against their earthly masters, against the now extinct Order of Ulv, and in support of the Iron Hammer.
That, more than anything else, led me to believe that there was an ill will somewhere in Oganzar, someone who worked to bring the city under its rule, or that of the Iron Hammer. The city was a member of the Merchant Cities of Carosia, which had so far violently opposed the army that was secretly controlled by the Black Circle. Three years ago the navy of the Iron Hammer had been repelled after trying to invade Oganzar, and now I suspected another kind of plot was hatching.
"Bow before the chosen!" the man with the tiller, pale of skin with a large beard, yelled again, so agitated that he steered the boat into the trunk of a tree that overhang the channel.
I did not wish for a fight with these men, and expected to avoid it. This channel was one of the most-traveled routes from the Cliff to the west, being deep and almost straight, and so there were other boats about to witness any attack. All around we could see buildings, from the large rent-houses such as the one where we lived, to solitary farms and huts. With a mighty grunt I heaved at the oars so that we could pass the boat without any further ado.
But that was not to happen. I swore inwardly as I saw Rainbow raise an brown-robed arm and vigorously wink her little finger at the two men, the rest of her body still hidden in her clothes. The smallness of the finger was meant to imply that neither of the two men were well-endowed, and the winking a suggestion of impotency.
"Boy!" the tiller-man shouted as he managed to straighten their boat again. "Insolent pigs! I will strangle you and your boy for this!"
Whether Rainbow showed any signs of being indignant due to being taken for a young lad, I did not get the chance to see. Instead I had to turn quickly around, put down one oar and grab the other, ready to fight as our boat quickly closed in on the other.
"Take this, by Uzar!" the oarsman yelled and swung his oar at me. The two had chosen to arm themselves in the same manner as me.
My oar rattled at the impact, and then it was my turn to strike. For a few seconds I fought with them both as our boats lay next to each other in such a way that I had one on each side of me. Then, suddenly a flying vine entangled the oarsman's oar, and Rainbow, who must have thrown it, pulled hard. As the man let go of the oar and tried to regain equilibrium, she lunged forward and planted her small fist smack on his nose. She was not strong, but she was fast, and that more than made up for it.
Three more punches followed. The desperate man once caught hold of her robes, but screamed and let go when she bent his pinky viciously. Then he plummeted into the murky waters between the boats. With him gone it had been easy for me to give the drugged, erratic tillerman a good whack on the side of the head, and he slumped down into the boat, giving up the fight.
I shoved off against their boat, and saw the oarsman emerge panting from beneath our vessel. "The Lord of Dreams will get you, boy!" he raged, standing with filthy water to his armpits. "I will slaughter you myself!"
Rainbow had turned her back on him, and the last thing he saw in the deepening gloom was a waving, little finger illuminated by a strange, blue light. I shook my head and kept rowing.
"Are you angry with me?" she laughed, the blue glow of joy still strong in her eyes.
"It was they who attacked us!"
I made a sound.
"We were just defending ourselves."
"Hmph," I said.
"I didn't even show my true nature. I really think I deserve a reward, saving your life in such a splendid manner."
I began laughing, relieved. It did feel good to thrash two troublemakers such as them, but I just happy that Rainbow was glad. To her the excitement of the wild life was everything, and a brawl with two willing opponents was exactly what she needed right now.
"Where did the woman say to turn south?" Rainbow asked after a few more minutes.
"Double Tree," I replied.
"Funny," she wrinkled her nose prettily beneath the cowls of her hood. "I didn't know there was a channel down there? Was she reliable, this woman?"
"As reliable as any Minstrel that is more into drugs than music can ever be."
"Airheads!" the hellcat barked. "I never met no Minstrel with a thought in their skulls. Love-making, magic mushrooms, and their damn racket, that's all they care about."
"You got Minstrel visits deep in your forests? The man-eating hellcats?"
"Think, you simpleton!" Rainbow laughed. "We are a people of more than ten women per man! I guess every male Minstrel that ever roamed the western lands came to our forest eventually."
"Sure! We once had one of these peacocks come visit my tribe. They way he sung, it was like the moon itself had descended to bewitch us! A big, wide smile he had, deep brown eyes, and skin as dark as coal. I remember-"
"Do you?" I interrupted.
She threw back her head and laughed! "Come on, Wolf! How can a mere mortal resist a Minstrel? You'll see! But I am not sure if I want one joining your pack, they are damn unreliable!"
"Well, the one I spoke was very charming," I responded evilly. "A big wide smile she had, deep blue eyes, and skin as white as-"
Rainbow laughed some more. "Go ahead! If you want someone who abandons you to go on five-year rambles every now and then, then be my guest!"
"Is it true their music is magic? They were banned from entering Maurur because of that."
"It sure felt like it!" she winked at me
"Can you stop with the bloody stories and the winking?" I grumbled jealously, while she just chuckled.
"There's the Double Tree," she said then after a frustratingly long period of mirth, her face suddenly keen.
I turned around. Indeed, along the channel which was now mostly lined with thick shrubs that severely limited visibility, there was the dark shape of a tall tree with a trunk that had been split in two about five feet above the hillock it grew on. The area was infamous for being a breeding swamp for various kinds of insects, all of whom could fly and bite you. As a consequence there were few, if any, who made their home around here. The channel was almost devoid of other travelers now, and we could be fairly sure to avoid any prying eyes. I had no way of knowing how the growers of the Dream Lily defended their secrets.
"Let's disembark," I said, and Rainbow guided the boat over to the shore of the hillock. Then she leaped effortlessly onto dry land, while I followed somewhat more laboriously.
"Bloody thorns!" I shouted as it turned out the hillock was not made for romantic picnics. I had not seen the sharp pricks in the dim light.
Rainbow had seen them, and, with the light of her eyes, moved effortlessly around the tree. "So, there should be a channel of some sort around here?"
"Yes," I replied, trying to disentangle myself from the thorny bush without piercing my waterproof clothes. The hellcat meanwhile climbed the tree effortlessly, looking from side to side.
How could she move around here so easily? When we had first come to this place we had realized that the way to earn a living was to search for certain kinds of plants and bring them to the ships lying at the harbor by the Cliff. Since Rainbow could not show her true nature, and since she at first had spent a lot of time sick as well, it had been I who had been out here. I had learned the layout of the sprawling city the hard way, and knew my way around the Cliff. I had waded, climbed, struggled, cursed, and, because of my strange blessing of never getting neither sick nor lasting wounds, managed to earn some money. But whenever Rainbow could go out, she would run in circles around me.
"It's a good disguise," she remarked from a point ten feet above me, "but I think I see a water-trail leading south here."
Hidden channels and paths were common-place in the bog. If there was a patch where some valuable plants happened to grow, then the discoverer would go to any lengths to hide the way there. Somewhere, far from the city and prying eyes, there was a field of Dream Lilies, harvested and transported fresh to the dens of the Cliff, where they were bathed in clear water, their scent turning people into vacant-eyed followers of Uzar, the Lord of Dreams.
Rainbow and I had robbed and questioned, without much threat of violence, the vendors of the drug, but no-one had known more than that at certain places within city limits they met the prams that brought the small, folded greenskin pouches that held the fragile flowers. But now, due to a change meeting with a Minstrel that was out of her mind we finally had a way of striking at the source of the drug.
The Minstrel had been high on Dream Lily, but she had thought I was fiendishly handsome and had told me where to find the white fields where they grew. For she had been there, though she had been unable to tell me what she did there, or why she was given the honor of being allowed to visit, or by whom. Then she had grown sad and cried bitter tears as she mourned being a slave to the drug, being trapped here in the foggy hell of Bog City, not allowed to wander like her race is supposed to do. And I had spoken soothing words, patted her sobbing back and stroked her blonde hair until she had fallen asleep on the tavern table.
In near darkness we pulled the boat across the knots of wiry roots between two clumps of shrubs that grew adjacent to the main channel. I stumbled and swore as I tripped, scratched my fingers, and swatted at the many flies that refused to go to sleep for the night. Rainbow's eyes flickered light blue laughter at me as she moved gracefully, climbing over roots and under branches, pulling at the boat.
On the other side we began a difficult, unpleasant, dirty, sweaty, and ultimately slow journey over a mire that was hardly more easy to traverse by boat than by foot. I could not row, and would use the oar to push our vessel along. Rainbow sat in the prow and looked out, trying to find the best route, but it was hard in total darkness even with her eyes of light. Now and then we had to get out to lift and then push the boat over an obstruction of some kind, and we were soon tired and worn out.
In the end we were so exhausted than we unanimously agreed that we had come so far as to not been seen or heard from the main channel. Rainbow was convinced we had being following another channel south, one of the very worst quality. We pulled the boat about thirty feet to the left, or east. There was small mound there, and lying down on the far side would most likely keep us hidden.
Or if it did not, then so bloody what? We were dead tired. Each eating large helpings of the meat we had brought, and drinking deeply from the wine jug, we immediately fell asleep. Tomorrow would be better. We hoped.
Tomorrow was not better. I woke with Rainbow wrapped in my arms, her hair tickling my face, but from there the morning just plummeted.
Fog. Of course, just when it had been clear weather for week and we had gambled that it would continue for one more stinking, lousy day ... But the fog was here. Yellow-white, clingy fog, thick beyond anything possible elsewhere. It was so substantial that it was more like foam that fog. You got the disgusting texture in your mouth, and if you grabbed it, it dissolved lazily in your hand. Even hellcat eyes could not see far in this weather.
"If we continue," I whispered to Rainbow after we had breakfasted and groaned the cramps out of our backs, "then we can die out here. If we turn around we will most likely get back to the main channel and live."
"What?" she said, her face a blur three feet away.
"I cannot see the light of the Spire. We can turn back and save ourselves." I wavered. To continue would be very dangerous, but my mission was supposed to be that, if nothing else. But sacrificing both our lives, Rainbow's in particular, to the scavengers of the bog...
"I am sorry," her voice came now stronger, more angry, "I was just confused. I expected to hear a man's voice, not that of a chicken. Turning back? To that bloody room!? I will never forgive you!"
"But you are a forest creature, not a swamp toad," I protested. "You will get the fever again out here. You are not skilled in-"
"And you are poultry! So what? If your cowardice is because of me, then you can ram it up your ass. I want to live and die out here in the wild, and do both with a smile on my lips!"
"Then stop talking and help pull the boat. We are going on!" I grinned in spite of myself. Rainbow was the kind of person with whom you would draw your sword and charge recklessly at an enemy army, only so that you could die gloriously together.
But even so, there is no glory in getting lost in a swamp, having just a faint notion of where south is, and cursing and arguing and groaning and even weeping with the pure insanity and exhaustion of pulling that damn boat after you. Rainbow was constantly angry, and her tongue lashed out at everything that hampered our progress, including herself and me. I grumbled more quietly, but when we shouted angrily at each other in disagreement I found I had such a short temper that I most times just burst out that she 'bloody well do what I say!'
She would, and then she growled nastily at me when my decision turned out to be all wrong. Rainbow was not a strong woman, but she was wiry and had a marvelous endurance that kept her going alongside me until we could pull, push, and lift no more.
For two entire days we kept at this, getting further and further away from the city. Rainbow had lost the channel that we had being following in the deep fog, and could not blame her as I had never been able to recognize the faint trail in the first place.
Slowly the landscape changed character, becoming drier. We pulled the boat along over wet, long grass and stiff straws, and through copses of bushes. It got stuck there, and it got stuck in the many tiny mires and sinkholes that not even the fleet footed Rainbow was able to completely avoid.
"That bloody Minstrel!" I barked the evening of the second day." 'It's a wide, deep channel, ' she said. 'We follow it south and then we reach the banana lake in less than a day, ' she said. There are no lakes here, no brooks, no nothing!"
"Why did you listen to that damn mandolin-head? Because you felt sorry for her and she was so pretty, I bet? By the Gods, you men are pathetic! Never trust a Minstrel! Never! Banana lake? What kind of drunken monkey-drivel is that!?"
We kept bickering at each other as we lay side by side on the driest patch of grass we could find. But with the thick, yellowish fog there was no stopping dirty, warm water from creeping into our garments and mixing with our sweat. We had eaten the last of our food this morning, and had been forced to eat a raw fish that Rainbow had caught for dinner. For supper there was nothing but the scornful words we fed each other.
In the end I got so tired that I grabbed her head and kissed her passionately and violently for more than a minute. "No more words," I said then. "Now we sleep."
Rainbow replied by kissing me fiercely in return, and awarded me with the only blue light I had seen in her eyes for all of that day. She opened her mouth as if to say something, then checked herself, grinned, and crawled into my arms. She had to be dead tired because she fell asleep before my hands had even clasped in front of her.
When I awoke the morning after I did not immediately become aware that something was wrong. I kissed her hair, from which not even the long trek and the awful fog had managed to remove the luster, and rose. Working out about one hundred kinks and aching muscles I began to feel, if not eager, then at least ready to go.
"What's wrong?" I said, when I remembered that Rainbow had not risen.
Then I caught the hot, pink light in her eyes, and heard her rasping breath. She looked at me, but did not speak.
"You ill again, my sweet?" I asked, putting my hand on her cheek. It was burning.
"Don't be an idiot," she whispered hoarsely, and got to her feet with an obvious effort. "Don't stand there dawdling with your mouth open, Wolf. Let's go!"
She took a few steps, which led her in a circle, and then she collied with me. "Away! Move! Let's go!"
"You are ill," I said, feeling her brow this time. "You have a strong fever."
"Be off! We go now!" She tried to push me out of the way.
"Rainbow! Sit down!"
She slumped down on the ground like a sack of apples being dropped. "You are mean!"
"You need a dry bed, dry clothes, a potion, and rest. And lots of it!"
"You need to be nicer, Wolf!" Her head had fallen between her knees. "Do this, do that, you need this, you need that! You should treat me nice, nice, nice, nice! You stole my name! I was called Wolf. Now I am Rainbow, and I am a slave to Wolf. And I will do anything for my Wolf! Everyanything! I sit down, but I want to go with my Wolf!"
As I sat by her side, not knowing what to do, the weather did the only thing that could have made matters worse. It began to rain. Hard. The fog was soon washed away in a downpour so fierce that visibility was hardly improved at all.
Soon this rather dry area would become wet and maybe even feasible to travel by boat if the rain should last long enough. But right now the downpour made it impossible for me to move both Rainbow and the boat. If I made her sit in it and then pulled the boat along with her in it, then it would soon fill up with water and quickly become too heavy for me to even move.
There was no other choice but to lift her up, despite her incoherent protests, and sling her over my shoulder. For Rainbow, burning with fever, it was now just a matter of time.
Only bringing with me a small bundle of tools I left the boat behind and began trudging in a direction where I somehow guessed there was higher ground to be found. High ground might mean somewhere that wouldn't be flooded, somewhere where there was a chance of me building some sort of tent. Maybe it was a desperate thought, but it was the only idea I managed to come up with. Better do something, rather than sit by and just watch Rainbow burn up.
I am not a very religious man. My Order is called the Order of Ulv, and as such I know by whom to swear. I know a few prayers, and can recite some fragments of the sacred texts. But it was not until now, in this hour of dire need, that I well and truly believed.
I believed, with a fever of the mind that matched even that of poor Rainbow, that this, just this!, direction was the right one. Faith was upon me, and I walked through the bog with surer steps and more speed than ever before, the rain not bothering me much at all. My sweet Rainbow should not die, and it was in my power to prevent that!
I kept walking for what I guessed was a little over two hours, never doubting my path, feeling strong and sure of myself. There were hillocks here and there, but they were not what I sought. The last coherent words Rainbow had uttered was when she yelled at me to put her down, carry on alone, and continue my mission and build my pack without her. After that it was just senseless ravings. I kept walking. I kept walking until I reached the hut.
The small hut was for real, its wooden, red painted boards, white-framed windows, thatched rood, and low door were all real. So was the cistern, chicken coop, and vast garden that surrounded it, where all the colorful herbs grew. So, indeed, was the gray-haired woman sitting in the midst of the flowers, weeding.
The rain had lessened a little, improving visibility, and when I passed over a low ridge with Rainbow still across my shoulders I looked straight at this tiny home. It had burst out of the scenery like a white knight in the fairy tales who come to rescue the fair princess.
And there was definitively magic in the air. Ordinary women did not live far away from everyone else, tending such neat gardens with a variety of plants like this. When I had first arrived in the city I had been told there were three Powers in Oganzar. One was the Captain and his men and his fleet. One was the merchants and their gold. But the real Lords of Bog City were its many sages, who grew and studied and experimented with the flora. No-one knew all their names, and no-one knew where even a fraction of them had made their abodes. This woman surely had to be one of them.
She looked up at me as I approached, her sharp expression surrounded by a wild array of soaking wet, gray curls. Her face was lined, giving the impression that she was at least fifty. Her dress was of brown greenskin, and she wore rough gloves as well.
"Good day," I said hesitantly.