The men finally reach the swamp. It takes a long time, but they finally get through the swamp, and find cultivated lands. An old man greets them, welcoming them into his home.
“Have a seat, lad. And you, sir, enjoy the oats and hay. There might even be an apple or two nearby, if you look a bit.”
Revanth bowed his head, front legs bending, showing his thanks. The old man chuckled.
“You’re welcome, young fella.”
Alton sat and the old man ladled the stew into their bowls. A loaf of crusty black bread thunked on the table and the old man sawed off huge chunks for both of them. He slurped a sip off his spoon and dipped the bread in it. Alton joined him in his meal.
“I’ve been waiting for you all day. Must have approached me from the south. Worst way to come in. Of course, they’re none of them good.” He winked a merry eye.
“How did you know we were coming?” Alton asked.
The man put his finger on the side of his nose. “Old Jon knows all,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’ve not introduced myself properly. I can see you boys haven’t a clue who I am.”
“No, sir,” Alton replied. “We thought the swamp was unoccupied, save for—”
“The witch, Eleion.”
“Yes. Is she nearby?”
“Not if she’s smart. She and I don’t see life the same way. She’s damn near killed my swamp. Sucking the life out of the trees so the dryads left or died. Scared off the fairies and the wood nymphs and killed the sprites.”
Alton’s eyes grew wide. The more he heard of Eleion’s crimes, the angrier he became. “Tell me where I can find her, so I can kill her,” he demanded. He stood, throwing his napkin to the table.
“Sit down and eat, young man,” Old Jon said. “You can’t kill someone like Eleion. She’s too powerful, even for me. If I can’t take her, a young sapling like you can’t. Besides, you’ll need her knowledge to fight what’s taken your women.”
“You know that, too?” Alton was shocked.
“Word travels fast around these parts. Nothing else to do. I know all about it. They were taken by a puka.”
“Where are they? Do you know? Have you seen them? Can you help us?”
Old Jon settled back, relighting his pipe. The smoke smelled like burning mud. Revanth wrinkled his nose. Alton angled himself so the smoke went past him.
“They’re far from here. I know more or less where. No and yes.”
Alton blinked, puzzled for a moment. Revanth snorted, shaking his head. Alton laughed as realization struck. The old man had answered his questions, with no real explanation, but in order.
“All that can wait. We need to concentrate on the witch.”
“I thought she was a naiad,” Alton said with a frown.
“Can’t she be both? You’re a wood sprite and a hunter. Your friend is a man and a horse. Just because she’s one thing doesn’t mean she can’t be the other. Some of the most powerful witches are naiads—among the nastiest too. They can take the life force of the land around them, and use it to make themselves stronger. Eleion has been here a long time. This used to be a lush river and forest. You see it now. That’s because she’s sucked most of the life from it. But it still feeds her.”
“How do we overcome a creature that strong?” Alton sighed.
“You don’t. Most you can do is trap her. Or you might persuade her to help.”
“By making another deal like the one that trapped Revanth?”
Old Jon held up a gnarled hand. “To be fair, your friends miss-worded their request. Had they asked properly, not given the old hag any room for interpretation, there wouldn’t have been a war, and your friend wouldn’t be a horse.”
“Can you help us with that?”
Old Jon chuckled. “You’re learning, Sapling.”
Alton tried not to be offended by that nickname, but it rankled. He was hardly a child. Among his own kind, he was still a young man. By human standards, he was probably of an age with Old Jon.
“Don’t like that, do you, youngun’?” The old man winked. “Think you’re old as me?” He shook his grizzled head. “Sapling, I was merely old when the world was young. When you were a lad, I was ancient. Truth is, I don’t know my age anymore. But trust me, even Oak Mother is a spry twig in comparison to Old Jon.”
His glance moved to Revanth. The horse stood, head bowed, knees bent in supplication. “That’s the first sensible thing anyone’s said today—besides me, of course.” He winked. “Your friend thinks you need to put aside your petty annoyance, and have a listen. He didn’t say it quite that way, of course.”
“He’s right,” Alton said, somewhat chagrined. “My apologizes, sir. I guess I’m used to being the old man of the bunch.”
Old Jon laughed heartily. “No offense taken, lad. You and I will get along splendidly.”
“How do we go about this, Old Jon? We can’t take her on head to head, as we’d planned. Do we sneak up on her?”
“There’s no sneaking with Eleion. She knows you’re here, and she knows your intentions. She’s got ears to the ground and the wind. The animals and plants are all her slaves. She’s as close to a god as it’s possible to be without divinity. I’m old and strong, but I don’t drain the life around me dry. As long as she’s got her feet in the mud, she can call upon everything to aid her.”
© 2019 Dellani Oakes