The Curse of the Ebon Maw Chapter Eleven by A. S. Raithe

Mira’s feathers fluffed. Cocking her head at the curious feline, her lips moved wordlessly. Echo knelt next to her, studying the ginger tabby.

“Everyone heard that, right?” Healer managed.

Both zephyrni nodded.

“Oh thank gods,” Norm muttered. “I was worried I’d inhaled something at the mill.”

The cat’s tail curled into a question mark. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh um.” Echo cleared her throat. “Pardon us, Ms.…?”

“Rosalie,” she said, extending a paw. Her eyes fell on her paw and she gasped. “Oh my, where are my manners?”

She hopped up on her hind legs and began to grow. Her tail and fur slid back inside her. Her ears flattened and slid to the sides of her head. In short order, she became of human form. Toddler sized, but human nonetheless.

A diminutive figure, smaller even than Vivveen, she was undeniably a woman in shape and build. Her wild, brunette curls fell in an untamed cascade. Blue eyes flecked with purple darted from one person to another, learning their forms in a blink.

Echo gasped. “You’re a Yesha nomad.”

“Well I am a Child of Yesha, but I’m not sure ‘nomad’ is quite right.” Rosalie laughed to herself. “I’ve lived in this swamp all my life.”

“Regardless.” Echoed bowed her head to her. “You have my apologies, Ms. Rosalie. We’d heard rumor of Yesha in the Larris Marsh, but the report was unconfirmed. I’m afraid a talking cat took us rather off guard.”

“Oh no, Miss.” Rosalie waved off her apology. “I should be the one apologizing. It was rather rude of me to forget my form like that. I must’ve given you a terrible fright.”

Mira chuckled. “I don’t know if I’d say that, but it definitely took me off guard.”

“Oh my.” Echo’s cheeks reddened. “It seems it’s now we who have forgotten our manners. Good afternoon, Ms. Rosalie. I am Echo, and these are my companions, Norm, Healer, and Dame Mira.”

“Ooh! A knight?” Rosalie curtseyed. “I don’t know if I’ve ever met a real knight before… Well, I suppose big brother used to be one, but I don’t know if he counts anymore.”

“Your brother was a knight?” said Mira.

“Once.” Rosalie shrugged. “But he doesn’t like to talk about it.”

“I see…” Not wanting to press further on the topic of dereliction, Mira changed subjects. “So, what brings you to Larris sur L’eau, Ms. Rosalie?”

“Rosie suits me just fine, dear.” She looked to the sky, smiling. “A little bird told me that the village was having some trouble. Something about food shortages and a mystery ailment? I thought I might be of assistance.”

Waving a hand over the boardwalk, Rosalie chanted strange words. Words that somehow felt like spring. As if the seasons could be spoken into existence. And there, at her feet, a bush sprouted from nowhere, grew to full size, and produced succulent berries that ripened before their eyes.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to support the entire town, but I should be able to augment their storehouses,” she said apologetically.

Echo blinked, jaw agape. “That’s quite some magic, Rosie. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the more… natural sort of spell craft.”

“This bird of yours,” Norm began. “Did it mention anything else? Like the plague. Is it just here, or is it effecting the whole swamp?”

Rosalie gasped. “Oh, goodness me, I certainly hope not! He was short on details. You know how sparrows can be. Always too busy flitting this way and that. Not like a proper conversation with a cardinal, or jabbering with a jay.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Norm.

“Well, your assistance is most welcome, Rosie,” said Echo. “We were heading to the tavern for lunch. Would you like to join us?”

She laughed a tittering laugh. “Oh, I think you’ll find we Children of Yesha are never ones to turn down a meal.”

And did she make good on that.

Mira had barely finished half her lunch when, to her shock, Rosalie was finishing her second. Then, to the knight’s amazement, she ordered dessert.

“Good,” came Zhel’s voice as the door opened. “You’ve made it back.” The words hadn’t finished leaving his mouth before Vivveen was in Mira’s lap. “Anything?”

Wing curling loosely around the child, Mira shook her head. “Nothing.”

“If there was anything, it was beyond our investigative ability,” added Echo.

“Well,” Zhel began as he took the seat next to them, “at least we’ve gotten the word out. Perhaps we could have a look at the flour stores of the… unfortunate.”

“That’d be great, if it wasn’t for that whole, ‘they-pick-everything-clean’ thing,” Norm snipped.

Echo shot him a skeptical look. “I highly doubt they’d be eating raw flour.”

Caleb shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Mama was eating it by the handful before the priests took her.”

At the mention of their mother, Vivveen nestled tighter to Mira. The knight’s heart ached for her. Half-consciously, she ran her fingers through her hair.

“Did you warn everyone?” Mira asked to get the subject away from their parents.

She nodded. “Oui! We told everybody!”

“Good girl.”

Offering the girl a smile lit her tiny face. She turned in Mira’s lap and wrapped her arms around her. The knight tensed, but the child held firm, oblivious to the confusion shorting out the woman’s mind.

Mira looked to the others for guidance. Finding Healer’s knowing smirk first, she shuddered and averted her eyes, but all she found were the adoring smiles of the nu-duwar and Yesha, while utter ambivalence sat on the human’s features. At last turning to Echo, the duchess nodded and partially folded her wings around herself.

Nerves slowed Mira’s movement as she took the girl in her arms, wings enclosing them. She was so small and breakable. Soft and squishy. Everything Mira wasn’t.

“That’s why you need to protect her.”

The voice she heard in her head may have belonged to Captain Theris, but the words were hers. Her heart crying out to her.

Don’t get attached, she hissed at herself. You have a mission to accomplish. Once this is all done, she’ll… She closed her eyes tight. You’ll send her to the orphanage. Korik’s nuns can take better care of her than you ever could.

“So what’s the plan?” Mira asked, voice tinged with remorse.

“I’d like to have a word with the other priests,” Healer replied. “Not much to tell ‘em, I’m afraid, but we should check in.”

Zhel nodded. “I agree.”

“I think Mira and I should fly upriver.” Echo shrugged. “Test our water theory.”

“I suppose you want me to come with,” Norm grumbled.

“No,” Echo answered simply. “We can move faster without you.”

“Besides,” Healer added. “It’s not like I saw much. You was there longer. You’ll be the one needing to tell ‘em what you seen.”

“And us?” said Caleb. “We don’t have to go to the,” he gulped, “plague ward, do we?”

Vivveen’s eyes trembled.

Norm knelt next to him. Eyes passing from him to her, his face went firm.

“I need you two to be big helpers for me and help Armand. Floors need swept. Tables need wiped. Can you do that?” he said.

The children looked to each other before giving him very serious nods.

“Alright then.” Norm rose. “I’m counting on you.”

With that, they jumped to their feet, Mira and Echo close behind.

“We’ll be back in time for dinner,” said Echo.

Mira looked to Caleb. “Take care of your sister.”

He offered his best salute, and the zephyrni were off. In little time, Larris sur L’eau was nothing but a gray-brown blob as they soared upriver.

The marsh was beautiful in its own strange way. Tangled cypresses dripping in moss shielded much of the interior of the bayou. Reeds and cattails marked the sparse, heron patrolled shallows as they flew. But Mira’s mind was a thousand miles away in some dank, cold orphanage.

“Slow down!” Echo snapped at her. “We’re hardly in a rush.”

Startled, the knight came into a hover.

It took a moment for the duchess to catch up. “Where’s your head, love? You’ve been away with the fairies since we took off.”

Mira’s nose scrunched. “I have?”

“I’ve been chatting the past half hour with nothing more than an ‘uh huh’ from you.”

“Sorry.” Mira’s shoulders fell. “I guess I was distracted.”

“The children?” Echo ventured.

Mira nodded solemnly.

Offering her an understanding nod of her own, Echo motioned for them to continue.

“We can’t leave them here,” Mira said. “Healer told me a lot of people think they’re bad luck. That they bring the Hunger with them. It’s a small miracle they haven’t been burned as witches.”

“No, I agree. Honestly.” Echo sighed. “If we didn’t need to talk, I’d have brought them with us.”

“What is it, my lady?”

“That uncle of theirs. I can’t put my finger on it but.” Echo sighed heavily. “I don’t trust him.”

“Me either,” Mira agreed. “Why do you think I didn’t give them those pies?”

With that, she produced the bundle Romiér gave her.

“I think we should dump them in the swamp, and figure out how to keep those two away from him,” said Echo.

“Can’t you pull rank, my lady? Make an official proclamation or something?”

Echo laughed. “I’m not sure my word holds any weight here, my knight. Besides, were I to, I’d expose myself.”

“Yeah.” Mira spread her wings to catch a warm updraft to glide on. “I suppose you have a point.”

“What of you?”

A manic laugh shook Mira as warmth erupted across her face. “I hardly think I’d make much of a mother, my lady.”

“I meant you could make the decree. You do have the weight of Sitri behind you. Although—” Echo swooped under her. Rolling onto her back, her wingtips brushed the knight’s nose as a smirk curled her lip. “I think a certain little girl might disagree with your matronly assessment.”

Allô!” a masculine voice bellowed up at them.

Feathers slapped Mira’s cheek in Echo’s rush to right her flight.

Below, a man stood waving up at them from a flat bottom boat, a collection of fishing poles and traps filling it. He was alone, and aside from a machete hanging at his hip, unarmed.

Sensing no danger, at least, none an armored knight and wizard couldn’t handle, they came in to land.

The man was dressed for comfort. He wore simple tan breeches and an olive tunic. An oversized straw hat protected him from the sun, though his leathery skin had likely seen more than a few lifetimes’ worth of its ravages.

“Can we help you?” said Echo.

A broad smile filled his face. “Oh ain’t nothing for helping, chère. I just couldn’t believe my eyes.” He shook his head. “Zephyrni in the bayou? I’m thinking, I’m the one needing to be doing the helping. What brings you out so far? How can old Remy help?”

Mira and Echo exchanged uncertain looks.

“We’re assisting the priests,” said Mira.

“Oh.” He nodded his understanding. “That plague. Well, if you’re looking for more infected, you’re too far out now.”

Echo raised a curious eyebrow. “Too far?”

Oui. Ain’t been nobody or nothing come down with it more than about… oh I’d say about half a day away from the village.”

He’d earned their full attention.

“Oh now that is interesting,” Echo murmured. “Master… Remy was it?” He nodded. “Master Remy, you said no one or thing has been infected further than half a day’s travel from Larris sur L’eau?”

He nodded. “Furthest out I’ve seen was the Cocodril Tribe. Goblins, but good folk.”

“Where are they?” said Mira.

“Gone.” He shrugged. “They picked up everything and made a break for it weeks ago.” His lips screwed up. “I reckon they’d be about halfway to the coast by now.”

“Cawold.” Echo turned to Mira. “That would be about where Cawold is, wouldn’t it?”

“Roughly speaking? I mean, with sick, elderly, and children.” Mira nodded. “Probably.”

Echo’s eyes hardened as she turned back to Remy. “And you are certain there’s not been a case originating beyond that half day’s travel?”

Making an X over his heart, he raised his hand. “Papa as my witness.”

Mira’s nose scrunched. “Plagues don’t just stop, my lady.”

“No, I know,” Echo muttered.

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure.” Her jaw tensed. “But I can’t believe it’s anything good.”

“You think it’s got anything to do with Mama’s Tree?” said Remy.

The duchess cocked an eyebrow at him. “Your mother’s tree?”

“What?” Remy’s eyes flashed with understanding. “No, not my mama. Mama! Mama Shonda.”

“Who’s Mama Shonda?” said Mira.

A dark look swept his features. “La Maîtresse des Eaux Sombres, the Mistress of the Dark Waters.”

Sighing to himself, Remy took a seat, gesturing for them to follow suit. “Nobody wants the bayou,” he began. “No kingdom claims it. No warlord vies for it. And that? That goes for the gods, too, but just like us folk living here, that don’t mean there ain’t nobody on… the other side.”

“Mama Shonda is a goddess?” Echo ventured.

“Oh, she’d have you believe she was, but I already told you: there ain’t no gods claiming the Larris Marsh. Mama… She’s more like a… a spirit.” His eyes hardened. “Or a demon. All depends on what side of her you get on, but I’ll tell you right now, it’s a whole lot easier getting on her bad side. Not that many folk wanna be in her good graces.”

“And you think this tree of hers has something to do with the Hunger?” said Mira.

Echo sat forward. “Is that where she lives or…?”

“Lives?” Remy shook his head. “Nah. That’s where Papa buried her.” They sat silently, waiting for an explanation. “If there’s a mama, there’s a papa, right? Mama Shonda has Papa Corlo. When the first settlers came here, Papa took them under his wing. Showed them how to fish and hunt, what plants to use, and what to avoid. And the whole time, Mama was trying to feed them to the gators, sink them in the mud and sand, just get rid of them.

“You can imagine, that didn’t sit too good with Papa. The two of them.” He shook his head. “They got in a terrible row. Story has it, it lasted thirty days and thirty nights, but on the thirty-first morning, Papa stood alone. Mama had been defeated, and where she fell, he planted a tree.”

Doubt carved Echo’s face. “You think some dead spirit is responsible for the plague?”

Remy looked at her from beneath his brow. “Kinda hard for something that really can’t die to stay dead, don’t you think?” Her face paled. “Some folk ‘round here blame everything on that tree. Stubbed your toe? It was Mama. Milk gone sour? Mama. Most of it’s pure garbage, chère, but something like this…”

“You’ve a point,” Echo muttered.

“Can you take us there?” said Mira. “Or just tell us how to get there, if you aren’t up to it.”

He nodded. “I can take you there.” He glanced to the horizon. “First thing in the morning.”

“Morning?” Mira’s nose wrinkled. “Why not now?”

“‘Cause if we left now, the sun would be setting by the time we got there, and the bayou ain’t safe to travel once darkness falls.”

“Fair point,” Echo relented. “The alligators are dangerous enough to say nothing of what else might dwell here.”

 “Meet me at the north ward docks about an hour after sunrise, and bring a lunch.” With a groan, Remy got back to his feet. “We should be back by supper.”

“Safe travel, Master Remy,” Echo said as she spread her wings.

“We’ll see you in the morning,” added Mira.

He waved to the zephyrni as they took off.

For the longest while, they flew in silence. Wary glances passed between them. Echo’s face trembled. Mira reached for her. Tucking her wings, the duchess rolled into her knight’s waiting arms.

“Forgive me, my knight,” she barely whispered.

“It’s okay, my lady,” said Mira. “I’m sure you’re not used to having to soar for so long.”

“No, not for this. For everything. Gods. Spirits. All I wanted to do was get away and…” Quiet sobs stole the last of her voice.

Coming into a hover, Mira’s grip loosened. Curiosity etched her brow as she looked down at the duchess who could barely meet her eye.

“Honestly, my lady,” Mira began. “I think us coming here might be the best thing these people could’ve hoped for. The priests haven’t been able to do anything, but in one day we’ve managed to learn so much.”

A faltering smile crossed Echo’s lips. “You’re right. We’ll figure this out.” She pressed her head to Mira’s shoulder. “We have to.”

“Can you fly?” Echo shook her head. “Then hold on, my lady.”

Their grips tightened around each other as Mira spread her wings to soar. Despite the slight duchess locked around her, she found it wasn’t much different than flying in her armor. Granted, its weight was distributed evenly across the whole of her body, not concentrated chiefly on her chest.

Sniffs rose from her shoulder. She looked down, expecting to see tears streaming from her lady’s eyes. Instead, she was met with a quizzical look.

“Are you wearing my perfume?” said Echo.

“Sorry.” Mira bit her lip. “I just couldn’t take the swamp smell anymore.”

“No, that’s alright.” She adjusted herself in her arms. “It smells nice on you.” A soft laugh shook her. “Maybe there’s some lady in you after all.”

Continue to Chapter Twelve soon.

About the Author

A. S. Raithe is a fantasy author living near Pittsburgh with his wife and children. Always the creative type, it wasn’t until high school and being introduced to a local bestselling author that he found his passion for writing. He took time away from writing to attend college before being convinced by his wife to pick it up again shortly after their wedding. Outside of writing he enjoys exercise, baking, gardening, folklore, music, and hiking.

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