VII. The Swamp

He knows that soon it will be dark.

The rider passes beneath a massive root which spurns the earth and falls into the depths of the murky water. The swamp seems endless and fog toils on the surface of the deep primordial recess; the only semblance of active life. He regrets now the absence of a compass but feels that in this place you are lost so long as it desires. Great, burdensome trees rise up beside thin, skeletal cousins that reach toward heaven.

This place, he thinks, is surely Hell.

The water is black like night and occasionally disturbed by the wind or a low hanging branch; he notices neither fish, insect, nor reptile and this unnerves him some. All places have some sort of life to inhabit no matter the harshness of the land; it abides to the survivors. This swamp, however, feels alien and twisted. He does not blame the beasts for abandoning its shelter. Mossy pillars force him to dunk low as his appaloosa trots slowly on the muddy ground; he can tell her hooves are sinking and keeps them moving to avoid that danger.

As they stop near the shore unable to travel further he sees the reflection of creation in the clouded lake. He sees the tree shadows and his own shadows swimming on the surface. There is a sudden snap and he is set upon by a figure.

They tumble to the soft, wet earth. The rider goes for his gun but the arms grappling him are too strong. He desires his knife but the handle is pushing against his belly as the attacker pins their weight upon him. All he can see are the wildling furs which cover them and the void of their cowl.

They raise a dagger made of deer bone and he uses his free hand to strike at their face knocking them off into the mud. He leaps into a crouch like a bobcat and his iron is drawn quickly; leveling on the figure that slithers back with their primitive weapon. A silence falls between them and the rider reaches slowly for his discarded hat.

It emits a horrible screech and lunges at him. The air is poisoned with gun smoke and the attacker falls backward; black-blood soaks into the ground as if the swamp desired it so gluttonously. Standing to his full height, the rider dusts off his hat before fixing it onto his windswept head. Approaching the figure he kneels and removes the trappings about its face. What he sees is horrifying.

A mummified face looks up at him, shriveled and wrinkled like old leather. The hair is long and flat against the skin in grassy tendrils. It appears as if this creature has dwelled in the bog for years and it’s dead flesh absorbing the filth into a solidified layer of skin. He prays and fires another round into its head before holstering the Colt. “I ain’t never once thought of such a thing,” a quiet musing before he carries on.

He journeys onward through the swamp. A long and treacherous path nearly takes from him the appaloosa who so valiantly continues on. They reach a stretch of land just as the sky turns steel blue and clouds frame about the remains of a white light now oppressed by the falling darkness. There are only a few thin trees in this field and a forest framing the backdrop.

He notices a hut or a shambled cabin brooding beside a trunk of a once great thing. He could not rightly describe it as a tree, nor the bones of some creature, but held qualities of both dead.

Nearing it he almost sees the shelter inhale and exhale but this illusion is erased by a long blink. His horse is hitched and he draws his iron once more; approaching with predatory caution upon the creaking front door.

His finger-tips push it open and he prepares to step inside. There is candle light from within and just as he opens his mouth to speak a claw of darkness seizes his shirt and pulls the rider inside; there is a second crack of gunfire then silence.

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