|Written by Laura J Underwood / Artwork by Holly Eddy
"I don't think I would do that if I were
you," the old woman said as she served
up a portion of mushroom soup laden
with grease and a piece of bread that
made Anwyn Baldomyre wonder if it had
been part of the wall at one time. "My
husband Jock went into those woods
and never returned. Lots of folks go
there and never come back."
"Why is that?" Anwyn asked, dipping
the hard bread into the broth in the
hopes it would soften a bit and not
damage a tooth. It had been three days
since he had eaten a full meal at all so
he was grateful to pay a few coppers
for a portion of what the old woman
named Mistress Portina had to spare
rather than waste magic to call food
from Rhystar of Far Reach's stores. This
part of the Lamborian landscape was a
warren of working farms, but no one
seemed to be working them. Here and
there, he came across the crumbled ruins
of old villages gone to seed and deserted.
Crops lay rotting in the fields, and the
odor of fungus was everywhere. He had
noticed it almost as soon as he entered
So he was a little surprised to find the
tall old woman stirring her meager soup
and the two puffy-faced men sitting in
the remains of a tavern gone to seed. And could not help but wonder why everything smelled like
mushrooms. There were several crates of them sitting against one wall, but the fetid odor made Anwyn
wonder if they were still edible. As he watched, the old woman snagged a handful and began tearing off
their tops and giving them a savage squeeze before tossing them into her soup. The sight was enough
to twist his stomach in sympathy for the mushroom
Mistress Portina shrugged off his question and glanced over at the two elderly codgers in their worn
animal skins and boots in need of mending. Anwyn had noticed much poverty in this part of the world,
and it caused him to put off his better clothes and stick to wearing the older trews and course shirt both
stained from the road, and to keep his harp Glynnanis covered. The last thing Anwyn wanted was to
tempt one of these people to rob him.
"No one really knows," the codger known as Wen said, revealing his last tooth was turning black. Sap
stained his hands. He had been out cutting pines for the old woman's hearth. "My daughter Megan went
in there to pick mushrooms and ne'er came back. I sent my lad Tosher to look for her, and he didn't
return either. Simon's wife went in there as well and was never seen again." The second codger nodded
"Why do you think folks is leaving this place?" Wen went on. "No one knows what lies in those boggy
woods and no one wants to go in and find out, and if you're wise, you'll listen to your elders and take
the long road."
I always seem to take the long road, Anwyn thought with a sigh.
:And when you don't, you know what always happens… a musical voice sang in his head. :Not that you
ever seem to learn from your folly. If you were a right and proper mage instead of a song spinner
refusing to make his proper sacrifice to release his power, you might know what lies ahead…
Anwyn managed not to wince as the notes of the white harp's words rang a little more sharply than he
thought necessary. He stuck his wooden spoon into the soup and tried to ladle up something that
looked more substantial than the bread and found nothing more than some grass and some grains and
a few bits of fat, and something black like an old mushroom with twigs entwined into its flesh.
"How far does the long road go before one reaches the next village or town?" Anwyn asked.
"Five days, if you don't get rained out," Simon said. "Seven if the Blackthorn River floods like it always
does this time of the year, as you'll have to follow it northwards to get to the old stone bridge, assuming
you don't get mired in by one of the bogs."
"And if I take the road through the woods?" Anwyn asked.
"Two days will get you to Elderwood Crossing," Wen said. "But you have to stay on the road and not
stray off or the bog will most certainly claim you. And there's the smell. The Fetid Wood does have a bit
of a stench. Worse than a corpse at times."
"But you don't want to do that," Mistress Portina repeated, leaning closer so that her breath blessed him
with a stink like old cheese. "Because you'll never leave them woods, laddie. No one ever does…"
Anwyn drew back and sighed. The food was turning his stomach as much as her breath and the news of
a longer route if he stayed out of the woods. Still, he made an effort to gnaw on the bread and found it
bone dry even after sitting in the soup. He pushed it into the soup again and spied the black remnant of
a mushroom once more. Poking it, the thing had a peculiar shape, almost like it had grown arms and legs
before it had been plucked. And the smell. Anwyn wanted to gag. With a sigh, he worried the bread
again. And watched as the old men put their heads together over a game of droughts, and the woman
continued to stir her soup and stare suspiciously at the crates of mushrooms.
:You're going through the Fetid Woods, aren't you? Glynnanis said.
Better than sitting here watching these people rot like their crops and their homes, Anwyn thought.
Or would it be?
~ * ~
Anwyn stayed the night in the remnants of a barn on the edge of the village closest to the forest.
Mistress Protina had wanted him to remain by the fire, but he had seen the number of bolts and bars on
her door and wondered if she meant to keep him from traveling onward. He assured her he would be fine
and that sleeping in barns and out in fields and the forest was something he had grown up doing. In
truth, he wanted to get as far away from her and the old men and their nasty soup and stone bread as
possible. Besides, the barn was sitting on a rise of land, and to Anwyn it meant dryer ground.
Something had been gnawing at his gut, the sense the three were not entirely alone. More than once as
Anwyn had tried to finish his meal—a chore he finally gave up on because the smell was too much to get
past—he thought he saw movements in the corners of the rooms and under the tables. But when he
turned, the shapes would be naught but the shadows of toadstools growing abundantly in reeds slimy
with mold and moisture.
The straw of the barn was broken and matted down with age, but at least it was dry, almost to the point
of making Anwyn sneeze. He wrapped up in his cloak, Glynnanis close at hand, and leaned against a wall
with a precarious tilt, but otherwise it did not move. What puzzled him was the realization the barn was
void of life; he heard no mice skitter among the straw, no birds nesting restlessly in the rafters. The only
sound was the wind passing through the cracks in the walls and the creak of the barn itself.
And the distance snores of men from the tavern.
All the more reason to sleep away from the place. If they snored loud enough to be heard this far away,
he was fortunate not to be sharing the damp floor with them.
He wondered if the toadstools would start growing on them.
Anwyn closed his eyes and fell asleep.
~ * ~
Anwyn woke to singing, a faint sound in the distance. It reminded him of a chorus but was too far away
for him to be certain. He stayed still, straining to hear the song. It was eerie, like the trill of owls, but he
had never known owls to harmonize so well. The low notes thrummed, and the high ones chilled him to
the bones. He caught himself moving finger to pluck the unusual song from invisible strings, memorizing
"Glynnanis, do you hear that?" he whispered.
:I do, the harp replied. :And I am not certain I like what I hear.
"It's just a song," Anwyn said, though only to himself would he willingly admit the sound sent shivers
traversing his spine. He crawled to his feet and moved towards the door of the barn. The cool air still
carried a nip of the odor of fungus. Anwyn wrinkled his nose and glanced towards the woods. The sound
seemed to emanate from there.
But who would be singing in the Fetid Wood at night? he wondered.
:And I suppose you want to go looking for the singers at this hour?
Anwyn frowned. Night still bathed the world in shadows, and there was little more than a gibbous moon
to light the way. So he stayed where he was, listening to the sound, letting his fingers mimic the notes,
curious but not so much so he would risk his life. There was still something about this place and it
invoked caution in his soul. Besides, wandering a bog in the dark was never wise.
"Not this time," he said softly.
He returned to his place and froze. There were toadstools lined up on a windowsill he would have sworn
were not there before. Just two of them sat side by side. He started over to examine them more closely,
wondering how they had managed to spring up so quickly when something hit the wall on the opposite
side of the barn. With a gasp, Anwyn turned and began to sing his Song of Light, casting its illumination
about the barn.
:Be careful or someone might see! Glynnanis scolded.
Anwyn shook his head. Any other time, the harp would have been pushing him to use magic, and now,
when Anwyn felt the need for light, Glynnanis was warning him? We're too far from the tavern for them
to see, he thought as he moved towards the source of the sound.
What he found was a bit of wood that had apparently worked loose from the wall had tumbled to the
ground. Softly, he let his magic song die, and with its passing, the illumination faded. Then he turned
back towards the window…
The toadstools were gone.
Gone? Where? As tempting as it was to go look at the window where they had been, his heart was still
beating a rapid pace. Surely they didn't sprout legs and run away.
But then his mind wandered back to the one that had been in his soup, the mushroom that looked like it
did have legs, and he shuddered.
:This place is too strange for my taste, Anwyn whispered.
He hurried back to where his stuff lay, poking around in his sack for tinder and flint. There was a lantern
hanging on a nail by the door, and he took it, checking to see if it had anything flammable inside. A
remnant of a candle greeted him. Snapping flint across steel, he managed a spark, and got the wick
burning, and though it popped and cracked in anger as though there were precious little left of it, he just
hoped it would last a while.
He hung the lantern on the nearest post and crouched in its golden light, determined to stay alert as
long as he could.
It was going to be a long night.
~ * ~
When Anwyn woke again, sunlight streamed through the window. The candle had grown cold and was a
mere hardened puddle of its former self. His stomach growled in protest of being empty. Scrounging in
his pack, he did manage to find the last of a bit of hard cheese and a crust of bread had not gone moldy.
He devoured these remnants slowly in the hopes of making them last.
There was no one about as he left the barn and the dilapidated village behind, though he still could not
shake the sense someone watched him from afar. It occurred to him as he stepped onto the road he had
seen no marker indicating its name. The old woman had not even said anything to him. But they had
known the name of the wood and the village beyond.
Two days, Anwyn thought as he shouldered Glynnanis' cerecloth sack and his satchel of meager
possession and started down the road.
Ahead of him, sunlight was streaming through the trees in a pleasant manner.
"It doesn't look so bad," he muttered more to himself.
:Nothing ever does until it's too late, Glynnanis replied.
He would have shaken the harp, but what good would it serve. Besides, the road was rising and forming
a dry path, and as he entered the forest proper, he saw the land to either side and below the level of the
road was damp. It was indeed a bog, and the rotten odors of decaying wood and plants began to fill the
air. So the Fetid Wood lives up to its name, he thought. Anwyn tried not to breathe too deeply as he
As he walked, he began to realize he could see remnants of old houses and fencerows of stone laid out,
but the bog had pretty well taken over.
"There must have been a flood at one time," Anwyn said. "A great one."
:That would explain all the water, Glynnanis agreed, and Anwyn sensed the harp shivered in dread. :Too
much water, the harp added.
Anwyn laughed. "You and water," he said. "At least we probably won't have to worry about bandits.
They're not fond of hiding in wet bogs."
:No, the harp agreed. :But other things are…
The sour note rang in Anwyn's head. He rolled his eyes in response and walked on.
The sun went higher and the air warmed a bit more, but light had difficulty getting through the lofty
trees soon forming a thick canopy overhead. Anwyn stopped and settled on a convenient log where an
old willow had dropped and landed on the edge of the dry road. Around him, he could see a world thick
with grey green and fungus. His stomach snarled in protest over not having anything left to eat.
:You could summon a feast, Glynnanis suggested.
"I could eat those blackberries as well," Anwyn responded, pointing to the bushes full of dark purple
fruit. "And save using a spell."
The limit of his magic, he reminded himself. He could only use each spell song once a day and he
preferred not to waste any of them if he could.
Anwyn crawled off the log and crossed the road, sitting Glynnanis off to one side as he worked his hands
into the bushes and filled his mouth with the sweet berries. And as he worked his way along, he saw
mushrooms up under the bushes as well.
Strange, he had never known mushrooms to grow under blackberries. At least it was fresh and white-
capped and not fetid and dark like the one in Mistress Portina's stew. Smiling, he started to reach down
and pluck it from the ground.
And heard a tiny scream of terror. His hand stopped just inches from the mushroom, and to his
surprise, it was cringing and bending away from him, trying desperately to pull itself out of the ground.
Its cry was echoed by others, and suddenly, Anwyn realized there was a whole patch of the things
scrambling around under the blackberries like tiny rodents—the ones that were not attached to the
ground. In fact, they were larger than the ones rooted in the ground. A couple of them came dashing at
him, waving small sticks with blackberry thorns on the ends.
One got close enough to poke Anwyn's hand. "Lords and Ladies!" he hissed and drew back, pulling the
injured appendage to his mouth. The little sticker had lodged into it, and he was forced to yank it free.
More than one of the little creatures that looked like mushrooms began charging him. They attacked his
boots as he stood up, and he fought the urge to kick them away. Instead, he backed across the road,
snatching up Glynnanis. More mushrooms with spears were charging out of the blackberry bushes,
swarming at him with tiny shouts of fury.
"Wait, please!" he cried and continued to back away, trying not to step on the ones coming from another
direction and attempting to trap him in the middle. "I'm sorry!"
They had him surrounded now, and there was no way he could step without crushing them. He stared in
uncertainty as they gathered in a large circle, brandishing their tiny thorn spears.
"He's the one!" a tiny voice shouted. "He was with the murderous ones! He was eating their food—eating
"What? Wait, I never ate anyone's children."
The bold little fellow pushed his way to the front of the mob, glaring up at Anwyn from under his hooded
cap. Beady eyes glared at the harper and the mushroom raised his spear.
"You were there, man!" the tiny fellow snarled. "I saw you partake of the soup she makes of our
"It was just mushroom soup…" Anwyn's protest died on his lips. Mushroom soup with the strange
looking little mushroom in it. He froze as the memory of the old woman savagely squeezing mushrooms
before tossing them into the soup assailed him. His stomach turned.
"By the Four," he muttered and dropped to his knees as realization sickened him. Mushrooms were
forced to flee as he leaned over and lost the meager contents of his stomach.
"Humans are so disgusting," the little mushroom snarled.
Anwyn wiped a hand across his mouth and met the little man's beady black stare. "You were in the
window," he said. "You were sneaking about the inn. What is going on here? Just who are you people?"
"We are the Crionfir," a calmer voice called from the back of the crowd.
Anwyn looked up as the mushrooms parted and revealed a tall, thin mushroom with a spotted red cap
advancing into their midst. He carried a staff instead of a spear, and his manner was dignified and quiet.
The others slowly bowed as he passed, showing him their respect. He stepped right up beside the little
angry mushroom still brandishing a spear and said, "I am Law Keeper, and I will pass judgment."
Law Keeper stepped forward and examined the contents of Anwyn's stomach. The other mushrooms
were quiet now. Only the little hot-headed one was poking through the vomit and saying. "There's one—
look—that's one right there..."
"No," the Law Keeper said softly. "That is a bit of old bread."
"What about that?"
"That is a piece of cheese," the Law Keeper replied. "I see no sign of our children. This man is not guilty
of devouring them. Your accusations are wrong, Protector. Apologize."
"I saw him," the angry one responded.
"Apologize," Law Keeper repeated softly.
Protector puffed his small chest as though the task were too onerous to bear, but he looked up at
Anwyn and said, "I am sorry," in a firm but low voice.
"Really, there is no reason to be sorry. I didn't know. I was hungry and I was eating the blackberries,
and I didn't realize when I reached for the mushroom that it was alive."
"As I said," Law Keeper said, "We are the Crionfir, and we are indeed alive, and long have we lived in
peace with those of your kind who dwell in the valley. But over time, they have broken the pact of their
ancestors to never touch the children of the Crionfir. Now we are struggling to survive. Just when we
think the villagers have forgotten us, the woman and her men come into the wood to steal our children
and take them away."
Anwyn frowned. "The box of mushrooms she was using to make soup…those were your children?"
"Aye," one of the Crionfir said, pushing forward. The face looking up at Anwyn was more feminine. "They
were. You must understand that when our children are born, they are but spores and we plant them in
the soil, and once they mature, their roots fall off and they are set free to roam and make more spores
when they mature."
"But while they are children, they cannot leave the soil beds or they will die," Law Keeper said.
"Have you not tried to tell them this?" Anwyn asked.
"Depends on who you tell," Law Keeper said. "Those who have come hunting for our children will not
listen, for they are ruled by greed."
"But what about the others who came here?" Anwyn said. "What about the daughter and the son and
the wife and the husband who came here and disappeared."
"They left on two legs," Protector said with a sneer. "We did nothing to them, if that is what you mean."
"I don't understand. Where did they go?"
"The girl?" Law Keeper said. "She came into the woods weeping, and her brother came and found her
hiding here. She told him what their father was doing to her—that he was using her as though she were
their dead mother, and she was afraid to go back. Her brother became angry and said they would go to
a new place to live so she would never be harmed again. The wife? Her husband beat her so much she
passed through here with all that she owned and didn't even stop on the way. The husband, he was old
when he came into these woods, and his wife was with him. He told her it was wrong to break the
covenant with us, and she screamed at him, and he said he would leave, so she attacked him with her
staff and broke his head. I can show you where his bones lie…he is bringing comfort to some of our
"No thank you," Anwy said softly, shaking his head. "Forgive me for misjudging you. I will leave and
bother you no more..."
"But, are you not one who has power?" the female asked suddenly. "Did Protector lie when he said he
saw you sing forth light?"
Anwyn hesitated. "If you mean, am I one of the sorcerers, no. I have not made my sacrifice. I have only
"But your songs could make light, could they not set our children free?" she asked in a pitiful voice.
A murmur rose from around him, small voices echoing the question, small caps nodding in agreement.
"Do you have powers?" Law Keeper asked.
"I have magic songs I was taught by Rhystar of Far Reach," Anwyn replied. "But I doubt they will help.
Especially if your children are dead."
Law Keeper nodded. "It is true that most of them would likely be dead," he said softly. "Still, we would
have them back, for even if they cannot mature, they can help grow the next generation of spores. And
we would bring them back so we might honor their deaths. It is our way. Without those children, our
people are doomed."
Anwyn looked at the female who was wringing her hands. Were those tears glistening on her tiny
cheeks? He glanced around and saw other females and some males with moist faces. And softly, a chant
began to fill the air.
"Bring us back our children, please. Bring us back our children, please."
Some voices began to ring with the songs he had heard the night before. Their music reached into him,
and his heart felt heavy with grief.
Anwyn closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"I will do what I can," he said. "I will bring back your children if I can."
"That is all we ask," Law Keeper said.
Anwyn rose and looked back towards the direction of the village.
:So you're really going to do this? Glynnanis asked.
:I cannot say no. Look at their faces. They are hurting. It's hurting me to see their pain, and to hear it
in that song.
"I will go with you," Protector said.
Anwyn looked down at the small warrior Crionfir at his feet. "Why?"
"You will need a distraction," Protector said. "I will come, and so will two of my warriors." He turned and
gestured, and two more Crionfir armored in bark and bearing spears of thorn trotted forward. "We can
make a lot of noise and distract them while you gather our children."
"But what if that woman kills you and puts you in her soup."
"I am too old and musty for her soup," Protector said with a smile. "No Crionfir who walks tastes good."
"Very well," Anwyn said. "Will I need to carry you?"
The three traded looks. Protector nodded. "Yes, that would be faster. And that way, we can form a plan."
Anwyn nodded and lowered his hands to the ground. Protector and his companions clambered onto
them and started climbing up Anwyn's arms quite skillfully. He felt them clambering up until they were on
top of Glynnanis.
:Hey, this is not funny, the harp said sourly. :Their feet are wet.
It's only for a short ride, Glynnanis, Anwyn thought and fought a grin. "Are we ready?" he asked.
"Ready!" Protector said.
Anwyn took a deep breath and started back up the road. The Crionfir parted to allow him and his
companions to pass.
I just hope they do have a plan, he thought.
~ * ~
They agreed just before dark would be the best time to strike. But first, Anwyn had to get into the inn,
and he knew he would be revealing to Mistress Portina and her men he had returned.
The afternoon waning sunlight found them sitting in the common room as he came through the door.
The Crionfir had slipped down deeper in his satchel with Glynnanis who had protested to no avail. As
Anwyn entered the inn, three heads turned and looked startled. The old woman was sorting through the
box of mushrooms she had on the counter, and Anwyn could see the small corpses for what they were
He bit back a frown and approached the bar, making a mental count of how many crates. Two full on the
"You're back," Mistress Portina said cautiously.
Anwyn offered her a smile. "Yes, I got in about a quarter of a league and the road just disappeared
under water, so I decided I would come back and take the long road after all."
"Water on the road, you say?" Simon asked. "Seems a bit odd even for this time of the year. Maybe you
stepped off the path?"
"Could be," Anwyn agreed. "It was a rather confusing place."
Wen nodded. "It can be very confusing for the unwary, but we are pleased to see you are alive. Did you
see anything unusual while you were there?"
Anwyn shook his head and walked over to claim a table. He set the harp sack on the soggy floor. Forgive
me, Glynnanis, he thought, knowing the harp was going to get a little damp, but he needed the satchel
on the floor so the warriors of the Crionfir could get out unseen under the table.
"There was naught but water and trees and more water and no road to speak of," Anwyn said. "Though
I did find it unusual that I heard no birds or frogs or anything. But now that you mention it, I did keep
hearing this mournful song."
"Song?" Mistress Portina turned and looked sharply at Anwyn. "What sort of song?"
"Mournful, as I said," Anwyn replied, watching the sack wriggle a bit as Protector and his companions
wriggled their way across the edge and dropped to the floor. He stopped looking at them and met the
old woman's suspicious stare. "Like the voices of mothers who have lost their children. In fact, that may
be when I lost my way and discovered the road went under the water. I was trying to find the source of
"Consider yourself fortunate you did not," she said. "You were nearly led to your doom. Like as not,
what took our kin was trying to claim you. Would you like some soup?"
Anwyn shook his head. Just the thought of what she put into it sickened him, but he kept his expression
"But how do you know your kin were led to their doom?" Anwyn asked. He leaned forward. "Have you
ever been in the forest?"
"Smart folk don't go there," Mistress Portina said, stirring her pot again.
"But have you ever been there?" Anwyn asked.
She turned another sharp look in his direction and said, "No. Why would I go to the place where my poor
"Then how do you know he disappeared."
"Well, he ain't exactly returned here, has he?" she retorted.
She jammed the ladle into the pot with enough force to send soup splashing over the edge and turned
to glare at him now. "Why is it any concern of yours?" she demanded. "Coming here with your fancy airs
and your silver eyes and golden voice to remind us poor folk of our misery?"
"Well, it seems to me that a man who loves his wife—even if he were led astray by a song—would do
everything in his power to return to the woman he married," Anwyn replied. "Unless he could not return."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked, leaning on the counter as though she might be about to leap
over it and attack him.
"I am a harper, madam," he said. "And as you have noted, I do have silver eyes."
"He's one of the witchfolk," Wen suddenly said and started to rise only to trip and fall with a splat, and it
was then Anwyn saw a pair of the Crionfir running for cover and realized they had tied Wen's bootlaces
together. He bit his lip rather than laugh
"Witchfolk?" Mistress Portina's face took on a look of dread. "They say witchfolk can speak with the dead."
"So I have heard," Anwyn replied, looking her in the eye. "Why did you kill husband, Mistress Portina?
Was it because he wanted you to stop breaking the pact and harvesting their children?"
"Why you!" The old woman seized up her cleaver and started to round the end of the counter, only to
give a squawk and fall flat on her face, losing her weapon. Wen was still struggling, and Simon was trying
to get out of his chair only to discover his bootlaces were bound to one of the legs of his seat.
Anwyn took advantage of the moment and leapt up, seizing his harp sack and scrambling over the top of
the counter. He dropped into the space behind it and overturned the stew so it splattered on Wen who
had cut loose his laces and was charging over to the counter. The hot liquid splattered, and the old man
howled and fell back as some of it splashed on him.
"Stop him!" Mistress Portina shrieked and she struggled to get back on her feet and reclaim her cleaver
from the depth of the mucky rushes.
Anwyn seized hold of both crates of mushrooms, and though the odor was rank as death, he clung to
them and began to sing his Gate Song, thinking of the road in the forest. The darkness fell over him just
as Mistress Portina was shrieking and aiming her cleaver for his head, and then he seemed to tumble
through the airless void before landing hard on the ground.
He was suddenly sitting on the open road just paces from where the Crionfir had parted to let him
return. There were tiny gasps and screams all around him. He could not hold onto the crates much
longer, for the stench was making his stomach heave, so he let go and crawled away, seating himself
upwind and clutching his harp sack close.
"Where is Protector?" a familiar voice asked.
"I had to leave him and the others behind in order to keep from getting killed," Anwyn said.
It was Law Keeper who spoke. Some of the Crionfir were already heading towards the crates, and the
mournful wails of mothers filled the air as tiny bodies were being pulled out of the spaces between the
planks of the old crates. The sight made Anwyn want to cry as he watched them cuddle small shapes to
their chests and shake their heads in dismay.
"I'm sorry," Anwyn said softly. "I will go back for them as soon as it is dark."
"I do not think you will be welcome if you do," Law Keeper said.
Anwyn shook his head. "I confronted Mistress Portina with her husband's murder and she tried to
murder me," he said. "But I don't want Protector and his band to think I have left them to die…"
Law Keeper nodded. "Then you should rest. There is a patch of dry ground nearby that is sheltered by a
tree. I will show you the way."
"Thank you," Anwyn said and sighed. He could rest until dusk and then return, and hopefully Protector
and the others would still be alive.
He rose to his full height, carefully moving through the throngs of mourning mushrooms and followed
Law Keeper off the trail and through some hedges into a closed in place where there was indeed a patch
of dry ground under a mighty tree.
Settling down, Anwyn closed his eyes to rest.
~ * ~
It might have been the snap of a twig or the fact that the mourning voices had fallen silent. Anwyn only
knew when he opened his eyes, he could hear the thump of boots coming up the road, and the
temptation to duck down was imminent.
And not a moment too soon.
"Here are the crates," a woman's voice snarled. "Damn him. He has got to be around somewhere."
"I don't think we should be here," Wen said. "Last time we came to harvest the mushrooms, they were
shooting us with their little thorns."
"And we drove them back with fire," Mistress Portina said. "They're nothing. Helpless. Too small to do
any harm. And we need those small mushrooms to fill our contract. Else wise, old Bonebreaker Wells will
be living up to his name."
"But that means we have to pick more," Simon said.
Anwyn heard the clatter of the crate as someone kicked it into the watery spaces between the dry road
and the roots of some willow tree. He shifted around so he was able to peer through the fronds of trees
and spied Mistress Portina shaking out a large burlap sack.
"Then we will pick more," Mistress Portina said. "And we will find that blasted harper if we have to go all
the way to Elderwood Crossing and hire one of the witchfolk who live there to track him for us. They are
greedy by nature and have no fear of turning on one another for gold."
"That will eat our profits," Wen argued.
"Better that than lose our livelihood and be on old Bonebreaker's bad side," she replied. "Now you two
can build a fire at each end of the path to keep them at bay, and we can start hunting around here.
Looks like a likely place to find their children..."
"We needs wood to build fires," Simon said. "We're in the swamp. Where's we gonna find dry wood…"
Anwyn winced as Mistress Portina turned and clouted the old man so he staggered and nearly fell off the
dry road. "There's plenty of deadwood," she said with a snarl as she drew a pair of gauntlets from her
waistband and pulled them on. "Now get cracking!"
Simon and Wen started rooting for dry wood. There was plenty of it fallen and dangling from the trees,
and they quickly had enough to start a fire. Anwyn was wondering what he could do when he heard the
tiny mushrooms under the hedges wailing in fright. Mistress Portina crouched now, and reached into the
thorny patches with hands protected by leather gauntlets.
Shouts filled the air, small but potent. Anwyn heard the Crionfir screaming in anger, and spied several of
the warrior mushrooms charging into the bushes from the far side. They were trying to thrust their
thorn spears into Mistress Portina's hands as she wrenched their children out of the ground. She
ignored them, smiling grimly.
We cannot let this continue, Anwyn thought.
Wen and Simon were striking flint to tinder and sparking flames, and in spite of the damp on each side of
the road, the fires began to rise and even caught some limbs of the trees. Then taking torches of wood,
they moved back to Mistress Portina's side and used the torches to drive back the Crionfir warriors.
:But what are you going to do? Glynnanis asked.
Anwyn frowned. There was only one thing he could think of. He closed his eyes and thought of the Song
of Rain. Water was the key, and as he brought the notes to mind, and then began to hum them in his
throat, he felt the moisture gathering and saw the bright sky peeping through the trees darken.
Mistress Portina looked up. "I know that voice," she said.
There was no hiding now, Anwyn knew. He rose upright and let the Song of Power roll from his throat.
"Get him!" the old woman shouted, but just as Wen and Simon started to storm through the hedges,
the rain began to fall in great walls of water. The fires were quickly doused, along with the torches.
"Kill him!" Mistress Portina screamed as the water washed her down and soaked her clothes.
Simon nearly reached the small hummock where Anwyn was standing when the old man fell. He screamed
in pain and tumbled off the path, landing in the mucky water. As soon as he hit the water, the branches
came alive with a mass of Crionfir warriors, and even as Simon tried to get out of the swamp, they rained
their small thorn arrows upon him. He thrashed about, trying to fight against the sting, and in the
process, he became tangled in the roots of one of the trees growing out of the water. Before Anwyn
could move to assist the man, he went under the water and did not return.
Wen shouted in rage and kicked out as something tried to snag his ankle. But his boots were thicker
than Simon's, and before the Crionfir could stab him, he sent it flying across the ground. Anwyn saw it
bounce off the trunk of a tree and fall.
"Ha!" Wen said, and with a wicked leer, he raised his cudgel of a sodden torch and started to attack
Anwyn was forced to relinquish his song in order to duck behind the tree he had used for shelter and
use it as a shield avoid the first blow. Wen came around the other side, laughing wickedly and swinging
at Anwyn again. The wooden cudgel smashed against the surface of the tree just moments after Anwyn
managed to duck. Wen merely shifted and started to strike downward, and Anwyn was scrambling to get
away, trying not to tumble into the water as he pulled the harp to his chest to protect it.
There was an angry shout, and several Crionfir leapt out of the trees. They landed on Wen's balding
head with flumps as their small spears and sticks began to strike him. Wen gave a wail and flailed at
them as they all dropped off him and reached the ground. The distraction allowed Anwyn to get on his
feet again and charge across the roots to the next hummock of dry ground. Wen tried to follow, but as
he did, a vine seemed to rise out of the roots and lash him across the ankles, sending him sprawling. He
lost his cudgel, and as more Crionfir jumped on him and leapt up and down like so many frogs, he lost
Tumbling into the water, Wen fought to grab hold of slimy roots and mossy branches. But each time he
nearly had a grasp, a Crionfir staff or thorn spear or arrow would jab him. Anwyn wanted to reach out
and offer his hand, but Law Giver was suddenly there, waving his staff.
"This is our right," Law Giver said. "For the murder of our children."
Anwyn backed away, leaning against the next tree and staring in uncertainty as the Crionfir continued to
attack Wen. The old man rapidly grew fatigued and let go at last, sinking under the water.
"He will pay us back by feeding our future generations," Law Giver said.
"But he was just a pawn," Anwyn said, frowning at the tiny Crionfir. "Mistress Portina was the true
murderer of your offspring."
"And shall be dealt with accordingly," Law Giver said.
Anwyn looked over at the path.
Mistress Portina was waving a wet cudgel of wood at the Crionfir who had her surrounded. "Get back,
you musty little monsters," she screamed and stamped the ground. Crionfir leapt out of her way, and
grinning maniacally, she stomped again, forging up the path as though to make good her escape.
"Do not be afraid of her," a familiar voice shouted from the ranks that lined the road.
Protector, Anwyn thought. But how had he gotten here without Anwyn's aid?
"I'll teach you to fear me, you little monster!" Mistress Portina screamed. "I'll cut you up and serve you in
a stew with the rest of your wretched kind."
"Not today," Anwyn said as he stood up once more and glared at the old woman. She ceased her charge
and turned to glower back at him. "You lied to me. You killed your husband because he said what you
were doing was wrong."
"He was a weak old fool," Mistress Portina said. "Here we have always had a great opportunity, but
because his ancestors made a stupid pact with these abominations, he would not assist me when I tried
to bring back the glory of our village. The floods did this, the year it rained so much that the swamps
rose and took away good farmland and fields, and we couldn't grow crops or keep livestock, and
everything we tried to store or build molded and mildewed and rotten before our eyes—all because of
"We go where the moisture leads, it is true," Law Giver said as he clambered up into a shrub so he could
face Mistress Portina. "But we were not responsible for the flood. Your husband knew it was a regular
event, that every seventy of your years, the waters rose to reclaim the land, and that it would stay there
for a decade and then recede, and while it stands, we are the rulers of the land, and when it draws away,
we go to sleep and rest until the next rain..."
"Pah!" Mistress Portina said. "You are to blame, you evil little things, and it is fitting that your kind should
be used to restore our village's wealth."
"At the cost of their children?" Anwyn asked.
Mistress Portina sneered. "Children? They are naught but tasty little mushrooms, you fool."
Anwyn glanced around at the Crionfir who had gathered in every branch and limb and shrub above water.
"They look like people to me," he said.
"Then you can die with them," she said and screaming, she stamped the ground and started to leap over
to where Anwyn was. He backed away, tripping and falling against the tree on the hummock, yanking
Glynnanis around to protect the harp from destruction.
And it was then he heard the warriors of the Crionfir shouting, and saw their numbers pouring out of the
trees and limbs, and leaping for Mistress Portina. She screamed and flailed as they attached themselves
to her, some of them actually taking root in her skin. Anwyn sat and stared in horror as they shoved
their feet deep into her, drawing blood so their lower parts began to pulse dark red. Like leeches, they
sucked her blood, weakening her. She went from flailing to floundering and falling, landing on the
hummock at Anwyn's side. He stared at her as she glared at him.
"I would kill you and serve your liver for lunch if it would bring back the village," she said before her eyes
He watched as the Crionfir swarmed over her, coating her in various tans and golds and browns, draining
her until she seemed to shrink under their onslaught. The odor of mushrooms and fungus and rot began
to fill the air. Anwyn covered his nose and looked away.
Law Giver moved into his line of sight.
"It had to be," the elderly Crionfir said.
Anwyn merely nodded and forced himself to his feet. Carefully, he picked his way past all the Crionfir,
walking the intricate pathway of roots back to the dry road.
Slowly, softly, they began to sing their song of mourning once more, and Anwyn watched as the bodies
of the Crionfir children were taken over to the hummock and laid out on the hump once known as
Softly, he joined his voice to their eerie song.
Laura J. Underwood has a fascination with mushrooms--she finds
them most delicious, though she refrains from eatng those she
finds in the woods because she has often suspected they might be
tiny wizards. When not walking in the woods, she writes stories
that have appeared everywhere from Adventures in Sword and
Sorcery and Marion Zimmer Bradley's FANTASY Magazine to
various anthologies. She also has several novels, novellas and
short story collections available including The City Under the
Bridge from Wolfsinger Publications to Song of Silver (Dark
Regions Press) and Wandering Lark (Yard Dog Press).
She is a librarian living in East Tennessee where the high humidity
encourages the growth of many mushroom people. Visit her
website at http://www.sff.net/people/keltora for more details
about her work, her writing, and her harp Glynnanis (yes, there is
a Real Glynnanis, though it never says a word to her).