To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.
November tends to be a gray and dismal month, so here’s a Thurvok sword and sorcery adventure that takes you into a gray and dismal swamp that’s inhabited by a monster, too, a monster known as The Thing from the Dread Swamp.
So follow Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha as they face…
The Thing from the Dread Swamp
The road to the seaport city of Neamene led through the so-called Dread Swamp. And never was a swamp more aptly named, for it was truly a dreadful and dismal patch of land, a wasteland of green and grey, of brackish bogs and stunted trees, trailing vines and deadly creatures, that stretched along the great river Tereine as it made its way to Neamene and the sea.
The road itself was high and dry enough, built long ago by slave labourers, prisoners captured during one of the wars the coastal cities kept waging against each other. But take even one step off the road and you ran the risk of stepping into a boghole. If you were lucky, you’d only sink in to your thighs or waist or even neck and you’d soil your clothes and lose your boots, once you were pulled out. If you were unlucky, the swamp would swallow you whole.
But bogholes were not the only danger that lurked in the Dread Swamp. For the swamp was beset by deadly water snakes and venom-fanged lizards, clouds of bloodsucking insects and dancing ghost lights that lured unwary travellers to their doom. There were also rumours about even worse things living deep in the swamp, but no one had ever seen any of them and lived to tell the tale.
Four travellers, two men and two women, trudged along the lone dry road through the Dread Swamp. One of the men was tall and muscular, with long black hair and the bronze skin of the nomads of the Eastern Steppes. On his hip, he wore a mighty sword. This was Thurvok, the sellsword.
The other man was shorter and lither, wiry rather than muscular. He had black hair and grey eyes, a dashing moustache and a devil may care attitude. His attire was completely black with the only relief offered by a silver amulet at his throat and a silver dagger at his waist. This was Meldom, cutpurse, thief, occasional assassin and habitual adventurer.
One of the women was tall and statuesque. She was swathed in a moss green cloak. Tresses of flame coloured hair escaped from underneath the hood. This was Sharenna the sorceress.
The second woman was slight and almost waifish, with long dark hair and large eyes, which seemed perpetually terrified. She was dressed in men’s clothes and carried a slingshot on her waist. This was Lysha, the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant turned fugitive from justice and Meldom’s beloved besides.
The four of them were travelling to Neamene in search of employment and adventure. And as with all travellers approaching Neamene by land, they first had to cross the Dread Swamp. It had been a weary two day trudge with nothing but the grey, green and brown swamp on either side of the road. Even making camp was difficult, for there was scarcely enough dry land beside the road to build a fire. And even if you could have found a spot for a camp fire, you’d never have found enough dry firewood.
And so all four of them were weary and miserable, but none more so than Thurvok, for the blood sucking swamp flies had taken a liking to his hot barbarian blood. Another one had just landed on his mighty biceps. Thurvok swatted it away, but it was already too late, for the tell-tale itch told him that the fly had already taken its road toll in the form of a droplet of blood.
“Accursed insects,” Thurvok swore, “Give me a dragon or a monster to slay any day. Cause anything is better than these demonic fiends that no blade can harm.”
“You should cover up, my friend,” Meldom, who up to now had remained remarkably unmolested by insects, said, “Those mighty muscles of yours may impress the ladies, but they also attract swamp flies.”
“Or you could rub your skin with my special blend of insect-repelling herbal oil,” Sharenna suggested, “It’s keeping Lysha and me unmolested by swamp flies and other pests.”
“I am a son of the Eastern steppes,” Thurvok growled, “We do not cover our arms nor use perfume like a woman.”
Meldom shrugged. “Have it your way then and suffer.” He turned to Sharenna. “Might I perchance borrow some of that herbal tincture of yours?”
In response, Sharenna dug into her bag and pulled out a small bottle. But before she could give it to Meldom, an obstacle on the road ahead attracted her attention.
“Say, isn’t that the coach that passed us earlier?” she wanted to know.
Meldom squinted into the distance and nodded. “Looks like it. And it seems to have suffered a broken wheel, too.”
“No surprise, considering they were driving as if a flock of demons were after them.” Thurvok swatted away another swamp fly intent on drinking his blood.
Meldom grinned. “Poetic justice, I’d say.”
“Will we help them?” Lysha asked.
“After they nigh drove us off the road and into the swamp?” Meldom countered, “No, they can fix their own damned wheel.”
Thurvok nodded. “I agree.”
“Before rushing to judgment, maybe we should first see what happened,” Sharenna, ever the voice of reason, suggested, “After all, there are many reasons why a wheel might break. Driving like a man possessed by demons is just one of them. Never mind that sometimes, coachmen drive as if possessed by demons, because they actually are possessed by demons.”
As they came closer, they could see that the coach was slumped to one side, for its wheel had fallen victim to a pothole in the road. Three of the four horses were neighing in protest, while the fourth munched contentedly on some swamp grass that grew beside the road.
Next to the coach stood a potbellied man. He was clad in a tunic of fine scarlet silk and obviously in deep distress.
“Fellow travellers, oh praised be the gods,” the man exclaimed, once he spotted the quartet, “Help! I need help.”
“First he nigh drives us off the road and now he suddenly wants our help,” Meldom grumbled, “And isn’t that just typical?”
“Be nice,” Lysha admonished him, “That’s not even the coachman. Most likely, he’s just a passenger.”
By now, they’d reached the visibly agitated man who was standing next to his capsized coach, wringing his pudgy hands in despair. His splendid tunic of scarlet silk was liberally splattered with mud.
“What is the problem, good sir?” Sharenna asked the man, “And how can we help?”
“Problem?” the man wailed, “First, a pothole took the wheel, then the bog took the coachman, the mud took my clothes and now a monster has taken my daughter, my sweet innocent Cerissa. And I’ll be late for the Grand Market of Neamene, too. Oh calamity!”
From the way he talked, it wasn’t clear which of those many strokes of ill luck he considered the worst.
“Wait a moment, did you just say that the bog took your coachman?” Meldom asked.
“And that a monster took your daughter?” Lysha added.
“Yes, yes, and most horrible it was, too,” the man babbled, “But I forget my manners. My name is Polyxo, vendor of the finest silks, velvets and garments along the coast.” He executed a courtly bow, which looked oddly comical, considering he was splattered with mud and standing in the middle of a swamp road.
“So about that monster…?” Sharenna probed.
“Oh yes, it was horrible, most horrible. After we hit the pothole and the wheel broke, my coachman went to get some wood to repair it. He ventured into the swamp — not very far, just over there…” Polyxo pointed at a burbling pool of greenish water beside the road. “…and then he suddenly tumbled in. My daughter Cerissa tried to save him — such a soft heart she has, my dear child — but it was to no avail. He sank before she could reach him. And then the monster came and took her. Oh, how horrible! My poor child, lost so young.”
Sharenna gripped the wailing man by the shoulders.
“What kind of monster?” she asked, “Did you see it? Did you see where it went?”
“I don’t know. One moment, Cerissa was here, crawling through the mud and holding out a branch for the coachman to reach and ruining her lovely new gown of ice blue shatyk silk besides. Then the leaves over there rustled and something emerged, a giant hand with claws instead of fingers. Cerissa screamed and then she was gone. My poor child gone, taken by a fiendish monster.”
“Did you try to go after her?” Meldom demanded.
“Of course I did,” Polyxo said, outraged, “What do you take me for? But the swamp is dangerous, the undergrowth thick and I ruined my tunic. And besides…” His shoulders slumped in resignation. “…I’m no hero.”
“We noticed,” Thurvok said dryly.
“But you, good folks…” Polyxo cast an appealing look from Thurvok to Meldom to Sharenna to Lysha. “…you look like adventurers. Would you go and look for my Cerissa? Just in case the monster hasn’t eaten her yet. I’m willing to pay you, of course.”
He fumbled at his belt and held up a bag heavy with gold coins.
“Well, in that case…” Meldom snatched the bag from Polyxo’s hand.
“…we’d be only too happy to help and rescue your daughter,” Lysha completed and shot an admonishing look at Meldom.
“Can you at least tell us in what direction the monster went with your daughter?” Sharenna asked.
Polyxo nodded and pointed at the dense shrubbery growing behind the pool of bubbling, greenish water. “There. That’s where I last saw my poor Cerissa.”
“So what are we waiting for?” Thurvok exclaimed, “Let’s go and rescue the damsel!”
He drew his sword and strutted off into the swamp, but before he could take only a single step, Sharenna held him back.
“Wait. Or do you want to end up like that coachman?”
Her hands glowed as she called up her magic. Not long after, glowing green splotches appeared in the swamp.
“The areas that glow green should be perfectly safe. Just make sure that you stay on the path.”
“What about the coachman?” Lysha asked, “Shouldn’t we try to rescue him as well?”
Sharenna cast her witchlight onto the boghole. The bog lay still and silent, awaiting another unwary victim.
“I fear it’s too late for him,” she said grimly, “But maybe it’s not yet too late for Cerissa.”
Because she had the magic, Sharenna went ahead, followed by Thurvok and Lysha with Meldom bringing up the rear. And so they ventured into the Dread Swamp, the burbling brackish water reaching up to their ankles.
“All right, so we know where to put our feet thanks to your magic,” Thurvok said, trying to chase away the cloud of swamp flies that was buzzing around his head. “But how do we know where to find the girl?”
“Monsters are on average pretty big,” Meldom replied, “We should just follow the swath it cut through the vegetation. Like there.”
He pointed at a hole in the undergrowth, where the shrubs had been violently crushed and ripped aside.
“Yes, they definitely went that way,” Lysha remarked, as they filed one by one through the hole in the vegetation. She bent down to pick something from a branch. At first, Thurvok thought it was a blossom, but upon closer examination, it was a piece of light blue cloth.
“This is a scrap of Cerissa’s gown.”
“How do you know?” Thurvok asked, swatting at a swamp fly that had landed on his thigh, “It could belong to the coachman or anyone.”
“No, it’s Cerissa’s,” Lysha insisted, “Her father said she was wearing a gown of ice blue shatyk silk and this…” She held up the scrap. “…is ice blue shatyk silk.”
Because Thurvok was still sceptical, she added, “I know a thing or two about fabric. After all, my father was a silk merchant, if of a somewhat higher class than this Polyxo character.”
“So at least we know we’re on the right track,” Sharenna said. She held up her hand and a path lit up in an eerie green glow. “And that’s the way we go on.”
Deeper into the swamp they went, careful to keep to the green glowing patches. Trampled ferns and crushed branches pointed the way.
Then, when they were skirting a pool of foul, burbling water, Meldom suddenly yelped. He jumped and would have fallen in, if Lysha had not caught him at the last moment.
“Something just bit into my foot,” he exclaimed.
Leaning on Lysha for support, he pulled his right foot out of the mud to reveal a mottled green critter clinging to it for dear life. Meldom slammed it against a tree stump to shake it off and then stepped on it for good measure.
“Vile, foul creature,” he exclaimed.
“Relax, that’s just a krawk lizard,” Sharenna said, “Their fangs cause blisters, if they touch the skin…”
“Oh, now you’re telling me.”
“…but otherwise they’re harmless and don’t hunt anything larger than water rats anyway.”
“So I’ll get blisters on my foot.” Meldom jumped around on one leg. “Ugly, pus-filled blisters. And if they get infected, I might lose the foot and…”
“Oh please, the bite didn’t even go through your boot,” Sharenna said.
Onwards they trudged, guided by the green glow of Sharenna’s magic and the crushed foliage left behind by the creature. The further away they moved from the road, the denser the vegetation and the gloomier the swamp got, until Sharenna’s witchlight was the only illumination.
A scream, high and shrill, echoed through the swamp, stirring up a flock of ilyra birds and sending krawk lizards like the one that had bitten Meldom scurrying up mossy tree trunks.
The four adventurers exchanged a look and quickened their steps, their boots splashing through the muddy, brackish water.
The trail ended at tangle of vines and undergrowth too dense to pass. So Thurvok raised his mighty sword and hacked out a path for them. Another scream echoed through the swamp.
Thurvok slashed the final vine and then they all saw it.
The creature was huge, almost twice as tall as Thurvok. It’s skin was a mottled greyish green that melded into the background. It had a pair of stunted leathery wings and four arms with clawed hands, one of which clutched a terrified blonde girl in a shredded dress of blue silk. The creature’s head was misshapen, with pointed ears, sharp fangs and a single, malevolent eye in the middle of its forehead.
The girl screamed and tried to free herself from the monster’s grip, but the thing was too strong for her. It lifted Cerissa upwards, perilously close to its fangs, which were still dripping with the blood of a previous kill.
“Let go of her, fiend,” Sharenna cried and hurled a ball of magical fire at the creature.
The monster ducked and the fireball hit the tree behind the creature, setting the foliage alight.
Undaunted, Sharenna prepared to hurl another fireball, but before she could, the monster emitted a scream of pure rage and launched itself at the young sorceress. It might have struck her, too, if Thurvok had not shoved her aside and launched himself at the creature, sword raised.
With all his might, Thurvok brought his blade down on one of the thing’s four arms. He’d hoped to sever the arm, but his blade struck bone instead. Nonetheless, he’d wounded the thing, rendering the lower left of its four arms useless. Green blood oozed from the wound like pond scum.
In response, the creature cried out in rage and pain. It dropped Cerissa, who landed with a splash in a puddle of brackish water.
Its prey momentarily forgotten, the creature focussed on Thurvok and Sharenna. It lashed out with its clawed hands and only a quick jump backwards saved Thurvok from being gutted.
Sharenna hurled another fireball at the thing and this time, her aim was true. Alas, her fireball exploded harmlessly against the creature’s leathery skin, though the thing did cry out in pain.
Lysha reached for her slingshot and fired a pebble at the thing and then another and another. One of her shots even hit the monster, though the thing barely noticed.
“Let me,” Meldom said and took the slingshot, “You get Cerissa.”
He started pelting the creature with a steady hail of pebbles and pieces of wood. And unlike Lysha, his aim was mostly true. The missiles were too small to hurt the monster, of course, though they did distract it and left it flailing about with its clawed hands.
While the other three kept the monster occupied, Lysha crept to Cerissa’s side and helped the girl to her feet.
“Come quickly. Let’s get away from here.”
Cerissa nodded and the two girls fled to safety, well behind Thurvok, Sharenna and Meldom who were keeping up the assault.
But the thing was stubborn. Though it was grievously wounded by now and bleeding from several wounds, it refused to die. Flight was not an option either, for the monster had blocked the way back to the road. And its skin was impervious to Sharenna’s fireballs.
Cold hard steel, however, could hurt the creature. And so Thurvok danced around the monster, stabbing and slashing whenever he found an opening and ducking and jumping to avoid the creatures counterattacks. Meanwhile, Meldom kept up the steady hail of missiles.
The fight might have gone on for a long time like this, if one of the opponents had not gotten lucky. But eventually, someone did.
Thurvok’s latest attack missed and before he could jump out of range, the creature lashed out and grabbed him, its clawed fingers closing around Thurvok’s well-muscled torso like a vise.
He was lifted into the air, dropping his sword in the process. The blade fell into the water with a splash. Thurvok tried to free himself, desperately trying to pry the fingers of the thing loose. But it was to no avail. The monster was too strong.
Already Thurvok could see its might jaw, its dripping fangs, could smell the stench of the swamp on the thing’s breath, close, too close. He braced himself for the thing’s bite, for those mighty fangs driving themselves deep into his flesh.
“Thurvok, down,” Meldom yelled.
Something flashed past Thurvok’s head, something gleaming and silvery. The creature screamed in pain and frustration, the hilt of Meldom’s dagger protruding from its single eye.
It staggered for a few more heartbeats, its body not quite yet realising that it was dead. Then it went down with a mighty splash, dropping Thurvok in the process.
Once the creature was down, Sharenna and Meldom hastened to Thurvok’s side to help him to his feet.
“Are you all right?” Sharenna asked, while Meldom bent down to retrieve his dagger as well as Thurvok’s lost sword.
Thurvok nodded weakly. “Just a few scratches, that’s all.”
“Once we’re back at the road, I’ll give you some herbal ointment, lest the wounds get infected,” Sharenna said. And it was testament to how weakened Thurvok was that he did not even protest.
Together, they made their way back to the road, guided by Sharenna’s witchlight. Meldom and Sharenna were supporting Thurvok, while Lysha had her arm wrapped around the distraught Cerissa.
“It’s all right,” she said soothingly to the shivering girl, “You’re safe now. We’ll take you back to your father.”
“Balo?” Cerissa wanted to know, “What happened to Balo?”
Since no one had any idea what she was talking about, the girl supplied, “The coachman. He was my friend.”
“I’m sorry,” Lysha said, “But I fear he’s lost. There was nothing we could do for him.”
In response, Cerissa began to sob and Lysha handed her a handkerchief.
They found Polyxo was waiting next to his capsized coached, still wringing his hands and being otherwise completely useless.
The merchant embraced Cerissa, overjoyed to have his daughter back — only to promptly cast a critical eye on the girl’s dishevelled appearance.
“Oh, but what did you do to your nice gown, my dearest? The fine shatyk silk is all dirty and torn. It’s a complete loss…”
“Does it matter?” Cerissa snapped, “Balo is dead and I was kidnapped by a monster — a giant, smelly monster that wanted to eat me — and all you can think about is my gown?”
Thurvok could not suppress a smirk. At least, Cerissa had spirit and seemed a lot more useful than her father. On the other hand, it would have been difficult for any human being to be less useful than Polyxo.
Polyxo, meanwhile, was still wringing his hands in despair. “Your beautiful gown is ruined, the wheel is broken and with no coachman, we’ll never make it to the market in Neamene in time. Oh calamity!”
Cerissa just rolled her eyes.
“We could fix your wheel,” Meldom suggested and cast a questioning glance at Thurvok.
In response, Thurvok got to his feet. He already felt much better, even without Sharenna’s smelly ointment. “Of course, we could.”
“For a price, of course,” Meldom added.
“Oh, would you?” Polyxo exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. And of course, I will pay your price. I…” He checked his bag, counted the contents and blushed. “…I seem to be somewhat short of gold at the moment, I fear.”
Cerissa rolled her eyes once more.
“That’s all right,” Lysha said and snatched the bag from Polyxo’s hands to count its contents herself. “We’ll take this…” She took out some gold coins and returned the much lighter bag to Polyxo. “…as well as five yards each of your best shatyk silk.”
Polyxo looked as if he was about to object, but before he could Cerissa offered Lysha her hand.
“Deal,” she said, “I think the purple would look lovely on you and green for your friend.” She nodded at Sharenna. “As for the gentlemen…”
“Black for Meldom,” Lysha said, “He wears nothing else. Though I hope I can persuade him to try some silver embroidery. As for Thurvok…”
“I am a son of the Eastern steppes,” Thurvok grunted, as he lifted up the carriage, so Meldom could remove the broken wheel, “We do not wear silk like a woman.”
Lysha ignored him. “That dark red, I’d say. The colour of fine wine.”
By the time Thurvok and Meldom had finished fixing the wheel and the adventurers had seen the coach off to Neamene, Cerissa perched on the coachman’s box, the reigns in her hands, the sun had sunken low behind the trees, painting the otherwise ugly swamp in a glorious golden hue.
So the four of them made camp by the side of the road. Lysha gathered what firewood she could find. Meldom caught a large turtle, which they roasted over the fire, while Sharenna dressed Thurvok’s wounds, liberally smearing them with a smelly herbal ointment against his objections.
“Sit still,” she said, “Or do you want to catch an infection?”
“I’ve had worse scratches than these as a boy on the Great Eastern Steppes…” Thurvok grunted, “…and I never caught any infections.”
“On the Steppes maybe not,” Sharenna said, “But swamp water is foul and can easily cause diseases.”
“This stuff smells awful,” Thurvok grumbled.
“Try to see the positive side,” Sharenna said, “At least the smell drives the swamp flies away.”
“I’d rather be sucked dry by those bloodthirsty fiends than endure this stench.”
“Oh come on, you big baby, it’s not that bad,” Sharenna said, “There. I’m finished.” She sniffed the air. “And so it seems is dinner.”
Meldom picked up a chunk of turtle flesh with his dagger.
“This is surprisingly good,” he announced, “At least for a beast that lives in the swamp.”
“That was no beast, just a turtle,” Lysha said.
“Yeah, but it was a nasty turtle,” Meldom countered, “It even bit my hand.”
He held up his right hand, which was indeed reddened and bruised.
“Do you want some herbal ointment for that?” Sharenna asked.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Meldom said hastily.
“So we spend another night under the stars,” Lysha said, huddling closer to Meldom.
“Yeah, sorry about that…”
“Oh, there’s no need,” Lysha replied, “After all, we saved the girl and killed the monster — well, you did. Plus, we earned a bag of gold coins as well as twenty yards of fine shatyk silk for our troubles. And you should know by now that I don’t mind sleeping rough.”
She flashed Meldom a quick, private smile.
“Not when you’re beside me.”
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.