Chapter Fifteen

Hurwood and Friend led them back to the plain of dark sand, where they retrieved the still-hot boots and knives, and then the two sorcerors again used the lamp with the slotted hood to find their way back to the burning torch Hurwood had left stuck upright in the sand, and then they were back in the normal world. The black Florida jungle looked comfortingly mundane now to Shandy, and he savored the swamp smells like a man brought back to the aromatic meadows of his youth.

After he had helped Davies and the empty-eyed Bonnett get all Chapter Fifteen the torches lit and push the boats back into deeper water and turn them around, he took Beth's arm and led her over the marshy, shifting ground toward the boat he and Davies had occupied on the way into the swamp. "You ride with us on the way back," he said firmly.

Hurwood heard him and responded passionately, but for a couple of seconds all that came out of his mouth were random, infantile vowel sounds. He became aware of it, closed his eyes in concentration, and then began again. "She—will stay—with—me," he told Shandy.

Hurwood's Chapter Fifteen insistence alarmed Shandy, for he thought he had figured out Hurwood's plan, but now it seemed there was more involved than he'd guessed. "Why?" he asked carefully. "You've no further use for her now."

"Wrong, boy," Hurwood choked. "Just—what're the words?—cocked it, here. Fire it come Yule—

Christmas. Margaret stays with … I mean … her … the girl stays with me in the meantime."

"R-right," put in Friend, his protruding lower lip shiny. "W-w-we'll t-take c-c-c—" He gave up trying to speak, and merely jerked his head Chapter Fifteen back toward the boat Bonnett was already sitting in.

Suddenly it occurred to Shandy what Hurwood's plan might be—and as soon as he thought of it he had to know if he was right. He had no qualms about upsetting Hurwood, and Beth seemed at best minimally aware of her surroundings, so he held his hot knife up near Beth's throat, covering most of the hilt with his hand to keep Hurwood from seeing that it was the blunt side of the blade that was toward her.

The triumphant expression on Hurwood's face was instantly Chapter Fifteen replaced with one of absolute horror. He fell to his knees in one of the oily pools, and then he and Friend both gobbled wordlessly at Shandy.

Shandy, his fears confirmed, grinned at the gibbering pair. "Then it's settled." Walking carefully backward through the spongy bog, keeping his eyes on them and his knife near Beth's throat, he escorted her to the boat where the puzzled Davies waited.

Hurwood turned to Blackbeard and hooted imploringly.

Blackbeard had been watching this torchlit drama with narrowed eyes, and now he slowly shook his head. "Our deal is done," he Chapter Fifteen said. "I won't interfere."

Shandy and the nearly catatonic Beth Hurwood clambered into the boat and Davies pushed away from the mud bank. Shandy sheathed his knife.

Bonnett proved unable to do anything more complicated than row straight ahead, so it was Leo Friend whose ample fundament flexed their boat's center thwart, and whose chubby, uncallused hands gingerly took the oar handles. Hurwood was hunched on the stern thwart, facing him, his face lowered into the palm of his single hand and his shoulders rising and falling as he breathed deeply.

Blackbeard poled his own Chapter Fifteen boat ahead of the other two and then looked back at them, and with the torch right behind his shaggy head he reminded Shandy of a total eclipse of the sun. "I don't suppose," Blackbeard remarked, "that my boatman is going to reappear."

Hurwood lifted his head and, though it took some scowling effort, he was able to reply. "No. No more than … your ghosts will. As long as we … keep the torches lit … and the herb burning, all of them … stay here."

"Then I hope I can remember the way out," said Blackbeard.

Friend blinked over his shoulder Chapter Fifteen at the pirate-king in alarm. "What? But you came up the river. All you've got to do is retrace the course you took."

Davies laughed. "You did remember to leave a trail of bread crumbs, didn't you, Thatch?"

"Naw," said Blackbeard disgustedly, pulling ahead, "but if we get lost we can just ask directions at the first goddamn inn we come to."

Slowly the three boats moved forward, their orangely flickering bow-torches the only points of light in the humid blackness. The white fungus heads along the banks were silent now, except for an intermittent Chapter Fifteen exhalation that flapped their lips. Shandy wondered if they were snoring.

After a few minutes the channel they were following broadened out, and normal rowing became possible, and Shandy, crouched once more on the bow, sat down more comfortably, for he no longer had to be ready to lean out and push off encroaching banks and roots.

Then all at once he was aware of murderous anger, and at first he thought it was his own; he glared back at the boat behind his, but Hurwood just looked exhausted and unhappy, and Friend was whimpering softly with each Chapter Fifteen torturing pull on the oars, and he realized that the rage he was aware of was a different sort from his own. His own was usually sudden and hotly choking and strongly flavored with terror, but this was soured and habitual and mean, and it emanated from a mind far too self-centered ever to entertain terror.

Blackbeard had snatched up his torch and was on his feet. "It's our friend the Este Fasta again," he called quietly. "Come back to roar at us again, and wave more bushes in our faces."

The jungle presence seemed to hear Chapter Fifteen him, for Shandy now detected a note of bitter humor in the psychic miasma of rage. He felt the thing think, bushes.

Shandy could feel it bending down attentively over the boats—the air was oppressive, and his lungs had to strain to draw breath.

Numbly he fumbled a handful of the herb out of the pouch and tossed it onto the torch flame, and a stinking gout of smoke boiled upward through the thickened air to impact against the vines and moss overhead.

He could feel the thing's sudden agony, but this time there was no scream and Chapter Fifteen retreat. The jungle spirit was sustaining damage but was not going to back off.

The air and water—the whole jungle—began to change. "Keep … moving!" came a choked cry from Hurwood. "Get … out from under!"

"Oh, good luck," rasped Davies bitterly, nevertheless hauling desperately on the oars.

The water was shaking like a jelly now, and the air was steamy and full of wet bits of vegetation that were evidently being shaken out of the trees. The structure of the boat seemed to be changing under Shandy, becoming more flexible, and when he glanced down at the floorboards Chapter Fifteen he saw that they were untrimmed branches, sprouting gleaming green leaves. They were moving, growing as he watched—

he could feel them heaving under his boots. There was a clump of wet waterweed on his bared forearm; when he tried to brush it off it clung by one end, and, when he grabbed the free end and pulled, he saw that he was simply pulling more of it out of a hole in his arm, and he could feel the internal tug of it all the way up to his shoulder. He let go instantly, and then saw Chapter Fifteen the tiny green shoots that were poking out painfully from under his fingernails. He looked back at Davies; the back of the pirate's head was a mass of flowers, and his hat was being pushed askew by new ones opening up as Shandy watched. In Davies' shadow he could see Beth heaving in the grip of the vegetative metamorphosis, but he shuddered and looked beyond her, toward the third boat.

"Throw him … someone," howled Hurwood as green stalks began unrolling up out of his throat.

"Bonnett," croaked Friend. His fat hands were now just elbow-lumps in the tree trunks Chapter Fifteen that extended from his shoulders, through the oarlocks, and out sideways into the water. "Give the thing Bonnett."

Blackbeard raised a face that was a huge, unfolding orchid. The stalks of the stamen spasmed and a voice whistled, "Yes. Bonnett."

Davies' bouquet-head nodded.

Shandy felt cold water flowing between his toes and realized that his feet had become roots and had penetrated the boat's hull. He found, though, that he couldn't bring himself to nod. "No," he whispered through a throatful of twisting reeds. "Can't. Did I … throw you … to the Navy?"

Davies' shoulders slumped. "Damn Chapter Fifteen you," he fluted, "Jack."

Shandy glanced again at the third boat. Leo Friend was a fat wet trunk with branches like spider legs projecting in all directions. A thing like a fungus-overgrown cypress stump seemed to be Stede Bonnett, and Hurwood, no longer able to speak, was now just a thick cluster of ferns that heaved furiously about as if in a high wind.

Davies labored on at the oars, but their boat was coming apart faster than the other two, and had already sunk almost to the gunwales. Shandy thought there was probably still time for Chapter Fifteen Davies to stop rowing, let Hurwood's boat drift up alongside, uproot Bonnett and pitch him into the water. With such a tribute the thing might let the rest of them go … but Shandy had apparently talked Davies out of that course.

Then Davies hitched himself up, and let go of the oars.

He's going to do it, thought Shandy. It's wrong, Phil, I don't like it, but for God's sake hurry.

Davies lifted one booted foot and dragged across its muddy sole the palm frond that had recently been his right hand. The Chapter Fifteen left one joined it, and, while Shandy wondered what the hell the man was doing, the two floppy green hands rolled the mud into a ball.

Goddamn it, Phil, thought Shandy, what good is a mud ball?

Shandy's horribly elongated toes had found the river bottom and begun to dig in, and he felt nutrients coursing up his legs. His hands were gone, with not even a seam in the fresh trunks to differentiate what had once been him from what had once been the boat.

Davies put one hand on the twitching gunwale, and instantly the hand took root Chapter Fifteen; but the flowering pirate drew back his other hand, braced himself, and then flung the ball of mud straight up.

And a bomb seemed to go off. The air was compressed in a scream that deafened minds as much as ears, and sent the boats rocking violently away from one another. Then the pressure was gone and the air was suddenly very cold, and Shandy's teeth hurt when he drew a breath. He rolled over—and discovered that he could roll over, he was no longer rooted into the fabric of the boat, and the boat was Chapter Fifteen a normal boat again and not a clump of writhing branches; it was even relatively dry inside. Beth was sprawled across the aft thwart—he couldn't tell if she was conscious, but at least she was breathing and had resumed her human shape. Davies was slumped over the oars, his eyes closed, laughing exhaustedly and cradling the hand he'd flung the mud ball with. The hand seemed to be burned. And somehow raindrops were pattering around them all, though the roof of the jungle was as solid as ever.

Shandy's ears were ringing, and he had to Chapter Fifteen shout even to hear himself. "A ball of mud killed it?"

"Some of the mud on my boot was from the shore around the Fountain," Davies yelled back, just barely audible to Shandy, "well inside the area that's poison to all dead-but-animate things."

Shandy looked ahead. Blackbeard, apparently willing to get the explanation later, had picked up his oars and was rowing again. "May I presume to suggest," yelled Shandy giddily to Davies, "that we proceed the hell out of here with all due haste."

Davies pushed a stray lock of hair back Chapter Fifteen from his forehead and sat down on the rower's thwart. "My dear fellow consider it done."

There was a sound like dogs barking or pigs grunting around them; with his ears still ringing it took Shandy a minute to realize that it was the fungus heads making the noise. "Vegetable boys noisy tonight!" he called over their racket.

"Drunk, I expect!" returned Davies with a slightly hysterical joviality. "Damned nuisance!"

Beth had pulled herself up and was sitting in the stern. She was staring ahead through half-shut eyes, and might have looked relaxed if it hadn't Chapter Fifteen been for the white knuckles of her gunwale-clutching hands.

Fog began making faint halos around the torches. Some distance ahead of them Blackbeard's boat veered south, and, though Shandy directed Davies through what seemed to be the same channel, they could no longer see his boat; all the glints of reflected orange light seemed to be cast by their own boat's torch, and though they could hear Blackbeard's answering roar when they called, it was distant and they couldn't tell which direction it came from.

After he admitted to himself that they'd lost Chapter Fifteen Blackbeard, Shandy looked back the way they had come.

The boat with Hurwood, Friend and Bonnett in it was nowhere to be seen.

"We're on our own," he told Davies. "Do you think you can get us back to the sea?"

Davies paused to stare around at the pools and channels that were identical to all the others they had passed through, partitioned by crowded trees and roots and vines that differed in no perceptible way from any other part of the swamp. "Sure," he said, and spat into the oily water. "I'll steer by the stars Chapter Fifteen."

Shandy looked up. The high roof of moss and branches and tangled vines was as solid as a cathedral ceiling.

For the next hour, during which Shandy called to the other boats but got no reply, and Beth didn't move a muscle, and the fog got steadily thicker, Davies rowed through the twisting channels, watching the slow current and trying to move in the same direction; he was impeded, though, by dead-end channels, still pools, and areas where the current turned back inland. Finally they found a broad channel that seemed to be flowing strongly. Shandy was glad Chapter Fifteen they did, for the torch was burning more dimly all the time.

"This has got to work," Davies gasped as he rowed out into the middle of the current.

Shandy noticed that he winced as he hauled on the oars, and he suddenly remembered that Davies had burned his hand throwing the mud ball at the swamp- loa. He was about to insist on a turn at the oars when one of the fungus balls on the shore spoke. "Dead end," it croaked. "Bear left. Narrower, but you get there."

To his surprise, Shandy thought he recognized the Chapter Fifteen voice. "What?" he called quickly to the white, blurry-featured sphere.

It didn't reply, and Davies kept rowing down the broad channel.

"It said this is a dead end," Shandy ventured after a moment.

"In the first place," said Davies, his voice hoarse with exhaustion, "it's stuck in the mud, so I don't see how it can know. And in the second place, why should we assume it wants to give us straight advice?

We almost took root back there—this lad obviously did. Why should such a one want to give us straight advice? … Misery loves company Chapter Fifteen."

Shandy frowned doubtfully at the low-flickering torch. "But these … I don't think these are what we were turning into. We were all turning into normal plants—flowers and bushes and whatnot. And we all seemed to be different from one another. These boys are all alike … "

"Back, Jack," piped up another of the puffy white things. Again Shandy thought he caught a familiar intonation.

"If anything," said Davies stubbornly, "this channel is getting wider."

One of the fungus balls was dangling from a tree over the water, and as they passed it it opened a flap and Chapter Fifteen said, "Bogs and quicksand ahead. Trust me, Jack."

Shandy looked at Davies. "That's … my father's voice," he said unsteadily.

"It … can't be," snarled Davies, hauling even more strongly on the oars.

Shandy looked away and said, into the darkness ahead, "Left, you say, Dad?"

"Yes," whispered another of the fungi. "But behind you—then with the current, to the sea."

Davies pulled two more strokes, then angrily jammed the oars down into the water. "Very well!" he said, and began working to turn the boat around. "Though I expect we'll wind up as Chapter Fifteen mushroom-heads ourselves, giving wrong directions to the next lot of fools to venture in here."

By the guttering torchlight they found a gap in the mudbank, and Davies reluctantly rowed into it, leaving the wide, steady course behind. The cool white light of a spirit ball or two glowed for a moment in the fog behind them.

The fog was moving downriver thickly now, filtering through the tangled branches and vines like milk dripping into clear water; soon it was solid, and their torch was a diffused, luminous orange stain on the gray-black fabric of the night—but the Chapter Fifteen channel they were in was so narrow that by stretching out his arm Shandy could feel the wet shrubbery on either side.

"It is beginning to quick up a bit," Davies admitted grudgingly.

Shandy nodded. The fog had made the night chilly, and when he began to shiver it occurred to him that Elizabeth was clad only in a light cotton shift. He took off his coat and draped it around her.

Then the boat passed through an arch so narrow that Davies had to draw in the oars, and a moment later the craft had surged out Chapter Fifteen onto the face of a broad expanse of water, and they had left enough of the fog behind in the rain forest so that, after a few dozen more downstream oar-strokes, Shandy was able to see the glow of the three shore fires ahead.

"Hah!" he exclaimed joyfully, slapping Davies on his good shoulder. "Look at that!"

Davies peered around, then turned back with a grin. "And look back there," he said, nodding astern.

Shandy shifted around to look back, and saw, back in the fog, the weak glows of two torches. "The others made it as well Chapter Fifteen," he observed, not very pleased.

Beth was looking back too. "Is … my father in one of those boats?"

"Yes," Shandy told her, "but I won't let him hurt you."

For several minutes none of them spoke, and the boat began gradually slanting in toward shore as Davies let his burned hand do less work. The pirates on the shore finally noticed the approaching boats and began shouting and blowing horns.

"Did he try to hurt me?" Beth asked.

Shandy looked back at her. "Don't you remember? He … " Belatedly, it occurred to him that there might be a better Chapter Fifteen time to awaken her recent grisly memories. "Uh … he made Friend cut your hand,"

he finished lamely.

She glanced at her hand, then didn't speak until they had drawn in near the fires, and men were wading out to help them ashore. "I remember you holding a knife to my throat," she said distantly.

Shandy bared his teeth in anguished impatience. "It was the dull side, and I never even touched you with it! That was to test him, to see if he still needed you to accomplish this magic, if some of your blood wasn Chapter Fifteen't all he needed! Damn it, I'm trying to protect you! From him!" Several men had splashed up to their boat, and hands gripped the gunwales and began dragging it in toward shore.

"Magic," said Beth.

Shandy had to lean forward to hear her over the excited questions of the pirates. "Like it or not," he said to her loudly, "it's what we're involved in here."

She swung a leg over the side and jumped into the shallow water and looked back at him. The rocking bow-torch had almost expired, but it was bright enough to Chapter Fifteen show the lines of strain in her face.

"What you've chosen to become involved in," she said, then turned and began wading up toward the fires.

"You know," Shandy remarked to Davies, "I'm going to get her out of this … just for the pleasure of showing her one more thing she's all wrong about."

"Are we glad to see you boys!" one of the jostling pirates exclaimed. They had dragged the boat all the way up onto the sand of the mangrove-shorn notch, and Shandy and Davies got out and stood up, stretching. The shouting began to Chapter Fifteen die down.

"Glad to be out of there," Davies said.

"You must be hungry as hell," another man put in. "Or did you find something to eat in there?"

"Didn't have the leisure." Davies turned to watch the progress of the other two boats. "What time is it? Maybe Jack'd throw together some kind of pre-breakfast for us."

"I don't know, Phil, but it ain't late—no more'n an hour or two after sunset."

Shandy and Davies both turned to stare at him. "But we left about an hour after sunset," Shandy Chapter Fifteen said.

"And we've been gone at least several hours … "

The pirate was looking at Shandy blankly, and Davies asked, "How long were we gone upriver?"

"Why … two days," the man replied in some bewilderment. "Just about precise—dusk to dusk."

"Ah," said Davies, nodding thoughtfully.

"And ashes to ashes," put in Shandy, too tired to bother with making sense. He looked again toward the approaching boats. Idly, for in spite of his deductions all he wanted right now was an authoritative drink and a hammock and twelve hours of sleep, he wondered how he would prevent Hurwood Chapter Fifteen from forcing Beth's soul out of her body so that the ghost of her mother, his wife, could move in.

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