Having grown up just a few streets away from the great harbour of Atlas, having watched his mother set out on the fishing trawler each morning, that great hulk of wood, rope and canvas, deck awash with oil and muck, its hull studded with barnacles, and then going out into the wide world himself, more often than not aboard ocean-going ships, from Atlantian galleys with their crenelated foredecks to shallow-bottomed barges for carrying troops and horses around the headlands of his home country, merchant cogs and cutters, nimble mainlands frigates, Albrihn considered himself something of an authority on boats. This was not, by any definition he was comfortable with, a boat. What the gnarls had paddled out of the mist was little more than a raft of rotten planks lashed together with rope woven from reeds. It surface was slippery from the same algae that covered almost everything else. Boarding it had been a hair-raising experience, even after the gnarls had pushed it right up to the shore where the water was only a few inches deep. Now he and Rykall both stood uneasily in the centre of the ramshackle craft being alternately towed and pushed along by the strange creatures. The gnarls were perfectly happy in the stinking marsh, it seemed. Most of their party swam or waded through the muddy water and always two or three would keep guiding hands on the edge of the so-called boat, propelling it along at an easy pace.
Rykall’s eyes never rested in any one place. He was trying to count the gnarls, Albrihn knew, but it was a lost cause. The banks of this channel were dense with reeds and bare, twisted trees, and the fog lay thick on either side. The gnarls moved quickly on land, with a fidgeting, slightly frenetic lurch. They reminded Albrihn of small animals in the open, constantly wary of predators. But hunched and diminutive though they were, it was hard to imagine what might prey on these things. They were constantly on the move, jumping in and out of the water, scampering across the firmer ground and disappearing into the mist. Occasionally they’d see one clamber up a tree, their webbed feet proving just as useful for climbing as swimming, and perching up there for a moment, apparently scanning the horizon with their bulbous eyes. They were all male, as far as he could tell, but their appearances differed somewhat. Most were as their host, certainly mannish in shape, but with a leathery hide and long limbs. Others appeared less human. Their skin was striped or mottled, and rather than being covered in warts it was smooth and wet. These ones seemed most comfortable swimming in the water. Strangest of all were those who had flaps of skin hanging from their throats. Albrihn thought little of that until one mounted a tree and inflated it like a pouch before emitting a croak that echoed across the fens. A similar reply came a moment later from some distant comrade.
“Toads,” Rykall whispered, “I told you.”
It was hard to disagree. Some of the gnarls were quite the opposite of these – appearing much more human even than their apparent leader. Their skin was free of all but a few clusters of warts and, though pale, was normal enough. A few even had hair, although it was universally unkempt and thick with green algae. These ones either stayed on land or, when taking to the water, did so in round coracles that they steered with short wooden oars. All of them though communicated in the same indecipherable language of hoots, hisses and gurgles. Occasionally a fully-formed word would appear in the midst of the strange animal noises, something that sounded almost Atlantian, but Albrihn could never quite make it out. Their chatter was a constant dirge, and it was clear there were many more of them strung out across the swamps than they could see at any one time. They would scramble through the reeds and dive into the water, maybe changing places with one of their fellows guiding the raft, maybe just scooting across and up the other bank, off to who knew where? Some stayed with the party, swimming or wading along, holding mysterious conversations with those closest to them before taking their leave and disappearing off again.
The only one who remained fairly constant, and which they could recognise, was the one they’d already spoken with. He was also the only one who seemed to be able to speak Atlantian, after a fashion. He mostly swam beside them, but would occasionally climb onto the raft, causing it to tip alarmingly, and stand with the two soldiers, watching them curiously.
“Where are we going?” Albrihn asked him once as he stood there.
“Greenfolk. Greenfolk.” He would say nothing more, and soon he was gone again, off into the reeds, only to return a short while later for no apparent reason. No one ever fetched anything or performed any task that they could see: they just moved around, going this way and that, talking and croaking in their strange way. It occurred to Albrihn that it may all be a deliberate ploy to disguise their numbers. All this could be for show.
“What are they?” Rykall asked after a while. It was hard to judge the passage of time in the depths of the swamp, but Albrihn estimated it was around an hour since they’d left the camp.
“You’re the one who claimed to know all about them.”
“I only know what I was told.”
“So what were you told?”
Rykall looked annoyed. “I don’t know…just tales. You know how it is.”
“We don’t tell children tales in Atlas.”
“Of course you do. You just don’t think of them as tales because they’re yours. Gnarls are just dangerous, that’s all I know. They steal away bad boys and girls who go wandering outside after dark. They eat human flesh and wear the bones around their necks.”
Albrihn looked at the current crop of gnarls moving around them. “I don’t see any bone necklaces…”
“Well, everybody knows not to come into these fens. They probably haven’t had a decent bit of human for years. And now here we are, sailing into their lair bold as you like. We’ll be for the spit, you mark my words, Albrihn.”
“Why would they bring us all this way just to kill us? They could have done it back at the camp. They could have had all of us if that’s what they had in mind.”
Rykall shrugged. “Who knows why gnarls do anything?”
Albrihn had no answer to that, so he fell silent and watched the creatures go about their unknowable business. “They were men once,” he said after a moment.
“They were human, like us. Something just changed them.”
“I don’t know. Living here? Something in their diet? I’m not sure.”
“What difference does it make?”
“It makes a difference. They’re Atlantians too. We owe them our protection from what’s to come.”
Rykall just snorted at that and looked away.
Presently, their surroundings began to change somewhat. The river widened and the banks faded into the fog, appearing only as dim shapes. At the same time, more evidence of habitation became apparent as well. Here and there they would see coracles or barges like their own, dragged up into the reeds. Some were obviously in need of repair, others merely temporarily beached it seemed. They also began to see planks and ropes through the shifting mist, hints of docks or something else. As the channel took a turn to the right, they saw something entirely new – an artificial island of branches, mud and reeds, all packed tightly together in the centre of the stream. A sort of dilapidated scaffolding of wood and rope was built atop it and several more gnarls manned it. They all carried bunches of what seemed to be light spears or javelins, and Albrihn could well imagine them casting them from atop their little fortification.
“A crannog,” Rykall said, “it’s what they live on. Or so the tales say…”
Albrihn watched the strange construction as they were pushed around it. These gnarls weren’t nearly so jumpy as the others seemed to be, but watched them with their huge, unblinking eyes as they passed. That first crannog seemed to mark the beginning of their territory proper, for now there was much more to see around them. The river forked off in many directions, and the dim outlines of more towers could be seen in the distance. They also began to see gnarls who weren’t warriors. By a small inlet was a rough boardwalk on which a gnarl crouched, pulling at ropes that trailed into the water. He ignored them entirely, just concentrating on hauling out whatever it was under the surface. Eventually they saw him drag free a sort of basket or cage made of lengths of springy wood, in which wriggled the glistening shape of an eel. Water and weed poured through the holes and splashed the fisherman, but he seemed unperturbed and dumped the basket beside him. The odd device looked designed to hold a much more impressive catch than its one solitary occupant though, and Albrihn thought the gnarl looked a little forlorn about his meagre harvest.
A short while later they saw two wavering lights up ahead and as they got closer they resolved themselves into a pair of dancing flames set on each side of a crude barrier built across the shore on either side. It resembled a kind of defensive wall, no more than a few strides high, but it was not in good condition and parts of it were falling into the bog below. Above each of the ghostlights was a stake and from them hung the unmistakable shapes of human skulls, filthy with age. They passed through the opening in the wall and beyond was a sort of village. Here, at last, they saw the gnarls in all their dubious glory. The channel continued on into the settlement, but now it seemed to open out into a wider patch of waterlogged marsh and muddy islands and bars made a great network that disappeared into the fog. These were supplemented by crannogs of heaped detritus, so that the path the water took resembled the streets of a conventional city. On the areas of dry land were built hovels of various sizes. Mostly these were round wooden buildings, with conical roofs made of reed thatch. Everything was damp and muddy. Some of the buildings were raised up on platforms supported by wooden stilts and, as they travelled deeper inside the village, they found whole clusters of homes built directly over the water in this fashion. Rope bridges and planks connected these buildings, and they were each surrounded by wooden verandas. Stretches of precarious walkway were strung right across the river, so that they soon found themselves being pulled along beneath a many-layered labyrinth of rope and wood. Gnarls were everywhere. None of them paid them the least bit of attention; they just scampered around much like the warriors, going from platform to platform, checking on more of the eel baskets that hung down from their dwellings, babbling away to their fellows. The smell was a mixture of mud and dung and, underneath it all, the familiar stink of cooking fish. Outside some of the hovels there were pots in evidence, tended to by the womenfolk. The female gnarls were little different from the men, and even dressed the same, sporting woven loincloths and nothing at all on their upper-bodies. Here, if it were needed, was proof that they were of human stock rather than spawned from some amphibian forebear. Indeed, only moments later Albrihn caught side of a woman nursing her child as she sat cross-legged on a high platform.
It was only the children that even seemed to notice them. The juvenile gnarls were even quicker and more skittish than their parents, fearlessly racing across the wet platforms and jumping onto rope bridges so they could peer over the sides at them. Even with their over-large eyes and pointed teeth, they were oddly endearing creatures and Albrihn smiled at a group of them and waved, which sent them scampering away in fits of burbling giggles.
“If these were humans once,” Rykall said, staring around at the unstable-looking structures with their stooped inhabitants climbing around like monkeys over them, “they’ve fallen far indeed…”
Albrihn considered. The village did indeed look ruinous. Many of the buildings had collapsed in on themselves, and the gnarls – at least those ones grubbing around at the bases of the platforms, hauling up eel baskets, had an air of defeat in their movements. The mud and algae that coated everything made it look half-abandoned anyway, and the children’s faces were hollow as their wide eyes followed them past. He’d seen this kind of thing before. Nothing even close to it in terms of architecture or inhabitants of course, but certainly the pervasive impression of misery and hunger. It was there in Talos, in the streets he’d fought so hard to defend. It was in his own city of Atlas, in the lawless shanty towns that sprawled out from the gates. In the mainlands it was practically endemic. These people were suffering along with the rest of the world; as the climate changed, plunging them all into an age of endless winter, famine would be the inevitable consequence. War too. If Atlantis’s civil strife spread, what would be the fate of these fen-dwellers?
The ramshackle buildings and bridges soon fell away, and another obstacle barred their path; this time a length of crannog that sloped gently down to the water’s edge. The gnarl warriors, including their communicative leader, took a grip on the edges of the raft and hauled it ashore. Albrihn and Rykall struggled to keep their balance, but once the boat was on land, they were able to climb off easily enough. The artificial island beneath their feet felt odd to Albrihn. It was uneven and had a springiness to it as he stepped on the matted wood and reeds. Rykall muttered something under his breath. The gnarls had no problem negotiating the strange surface, and their leader beckoned to them again. “Come. Speaker.”
They climbed the crannog and once over the lip, saw what lay beyond. It was an arresting sight. The crannog was more like a dam which described a great ring in the centre of the village. He couldn’t make out its limits, but it was clear it encircled a large lake in which no buildings save one were built. Ahead of them was a walkway made of wooden slats held aloft on poles, each of which was crowned with more ghostlights. This led to the middle of the lake where a wide roundhouse was built, suspended above the water. It was the largest and grandest gnarl building they’d seen so far. The lake itself was different from the water surrounding it too. It looked darker, and its surface seemed to wriggle and writhe unnaturally. There were no gnarls around save the warriors escorting them and they had fallen curiously silent, making a grim procession as they led them along the walkway. No one entered the dark water in this inner lake.
“It’s cold here,” Rykall complained.
“It’s cold everywhere.”
“It’s colder here then.”
Albrihn looked up at the sky. The fog was as dense as ever, but here it seemed darker. The air was indeed chillier than it had been. Maybe it was just the open water, but he felt a distinct stir of icy wind. Now his gaze moved down to the black expanse of the lake, and he could see things swarming in the depths. As one broke the surface close to the platform, he recognised the lithe, slippery body of an eel, but unlike the silver-grey kind he knew, these were midnight black. He saw that the water was thick with them – in fact, they were the reason it looked black.
“Why do those outside go hungry when they have all these fish?” Albrihn wondered aloud.
Rykall grimaced. “Would you eat those?”
The black flesh did indeed look unappetising, and it seemed as if the cold was coming from them rather than the air. The closer they got to the building in the centre, the more it intensified, until their breath steamed before them. All was silent, save for the unpleasant splashing and squelching as the millions of eels rolled and squirmed in their cramped abode. At least they reached what was evidently their destination. Before the round building was a platform, raised above the walkway, seemingly inaccessible from below. There were a few strides of open water between their path and the building itself, so that the two weren’t actually connected. Was this some kind of prison? The platform was lit with more ghostlights, and sitting atop reed mats before the entrance to what was obviously their home – be it palace or gaol – were a cluster of female gnarls. At the head of the group was an enormously fat and ancient woman. She was sitting cross-legged, and her pale belly flopped over her knees. She had flat, sagging breasts, barely covered by a shawl of woven reeds that hung over her shoulders. Her chin was lost in the folds of a fleshy pouch like a frog’s which rhythmically inflated and deflated as she breathed. Her teeth were sharp as needles, and black slime coated her lips and chin. Her head was bald, her features rounded and sunken, with a nose flattened into a snout and ears that near disappeared into her skull. Her skin was smooth and slimy, with a distinct green cast. A necklace of bones hung across her chest and in one webbed hand she held a staff made of gnarled grey wood, atop which was affixed a grinning human skull. Of all the gnarls they’d seen, she was the one who appeared least human. The women she sat with seemed younger, but were otherwise much the same as her.
“What is this? Some kind of ruling council?” Rykall asked.
“I don’t know…”
The gnarl warriors had all prostrated themselves before the platform’s occupants and now their leader looked at them from the floor. He moved his hand down to show they should do the same.
“Atlantians kneel only to the Empress,” Rykall said shortly.
“I think now would be a good time to make an exception.” Albrihn dropped to one knee and bowed his head. Swearing under his breath, Rykall did the same.
After a moment, a cracked voice spoke. “Rise.”
They did so and looked up to see the old woman staring down at them, tilting her head slightly. Then she turned to the still-cowering leader of the warriors. “Why do you bring me these men? I asked for their Speaker.”
“Speaker,” he replied with a cringe, “Speaker of brownfolk. This one.”
Albrihn took a step forward. “I am comma…”
“You are the Speaker of the brownfolk?” she asked, talking right over him. Her Atlantian was notably better than the warrior’s.
“I…yes…I speak for the Atlantians in your lands.”
“So you are not the Speaker of the brownfolk?”
“Not all the brownfolk, no…”
Again she turned her wrath on her servant. “I asked you to bring me their Speaker! You are a fool!”
“Speaker!” He dropped back down to his knees and covered his head with his hands.
“Please,” Albrihn said, “our Speaker is not with us. The brownfolk are numerous and our lands wide. Our Speaker is far from here, in a place of safety. But she has empowered me to speak for those she sends on this vital mission, just as you empowered your captain here to speak with us on your behalf.”
She seemed to consider that for a moment. “You are no Speaker,” she decided, “but you can carry word to her, yes?”
“That’s not all he’ll carry to her,” Rykall said quietly.
“Who is this one?” the Speaker snapped, pointing at Rykall.
“He’s a Speaker too. He speaks for some of the others in our army, but my voice overrules his.” It was just a guess, but he was hoping that was close enough to how the gnarls’ hierarchy worked to make sense to them.
Another long pause as the Speaker watched them. “Why have you invaded the greenlands?” she asked shortly.
“We haven’t. We’re only passing through.”
“We count twenty-hundred brownfolk,” she said, “with beasts and iron weapons.”
“Our mission is to fight an enemy beyond the greenlands. Passing this way is our only hope of stopping them. It was not our intention to trespass.”
“Brownfolk know better than to stray into the greenlands,” she said, fingering the bones she wore with a thoughtful expression on her lumpen face.
“We were warned about the danger,” Albrihn admitted, carefully avoiding Rykall’s eyes, “but we thought the risk was worth it.”
“You expected to defeat us?”
“We had no intention of attacking you. We still don’t. We just want to pass through and carry on with our mission.”
“If brownfolk believe they can just walk through the greenlands as they wish, what is to stop more coming?” She rattled her staff, and the skull seemed to chatter its teeth.
“If we don’t pass, more will certainly come.”
She frowned slightly and then leaned closer. “Explain.”
Albrihn held out his hands. “You know as well as I do that the land is changing.”
“The land always changes. Hot to cold, dry to wet.” She moved her hand in an arc across her body. The changing of the seasons.
“No, not that change. A greater change. The brownlands grow colder each year. The crops fail, the people starve. I know it’s the same here.”
“The greenfolk will survive. The land will heal.”
“Perhaps. But we believe a time of terrible danger is coming. Already some of our lands have fallen to fire and death. As the people go hungry, they fight one another over what remains.”
“But you fight now…”
“We fight to stop a greater war. If we fail in our mission, the brownlands will tear themselves apart. Many brownfolk will die.”
The Speaker snorted, and her throat pouch swelled. “What does this matter to the greenfolk?”
“Your lands are surrounded by ours. If the greenlands can no longer feed your people, you will be forced to leave them. You may find a realm in peace that welcomes you, or a land rent by war, in which you are just another band of refugees.”
“These are concerns for tomorrow.”
“That’s what we thought, but…”
“Enough,” the Speaker interrupted, “brownfolk are no concern of ours. You are trespassers in our lands. We do not tolerate this. Your army will die.” She nodded to the warriors, who moved as one to grab the two commanders. Albrihn found himself enfolded in a vice-like grip. The gnarl that held him was small, but as strong as he’d imagined.
“We were one people once!” he called out desperately. “Your ancestors were brownfolk, but you came here and you changed! We are not your enemies, Speaker!”
“We are nothing like you,” she said firmly, “brownfolk are untrustworthy. Brownfolk destroy the land.”
“A winter is coming that may never end! It’s going to destroy Atlantis! You are of Atlantis too! I know that you are!”
Rykall wrested his way free of his own captor. “Speaker!” he bellowed.
She looked at him. “Your voice is lower than his,” she pointed at Albrihn, “you may not Speak.”
“Hear me,” he continued, undaunted, “we are servants of our Speaker. She is as proud and fierce as you. Another has risen though who would be Speaker in her place. A man, who swore to serve her. We go to stop him. Won’t you aid the brownfolk in keeping their lands save from this usurper?”
Her bulbous eyes narrowed. Behind her, the other women were conversing quietly in their own language. She silenced them with a raised fist. “Is this so?” she asked Albrihn.
“It is, Speaker.”
“Loyalty is all. Only one may Speak with the Voice of the Land. You must destroy this challenger.” She stroked her distended chin contemplatively. “Perhaps…we are alike in some ways.”
“I believe we are,” Albrihn nodded, shouldering away from the gnarl who had held him, “and I think there can be friendship between our peoples in the days to come.”
“No friendship. Go to your war, He Who Speaks for the Speaker of the brownfolk. We will guide you from the greenlands by the fastest road. But if you should return to us, you will be given to the Blackwater.” Her eyes rolled down to the writhing surface of the lake, and its slippery mass of eels. As Albrihn looked too, he felt as if a great wind was rising from them – something dark and terrible, but also horribly familiar. Whatever dark power lay in these swamps, it was concentrated here. He had no desire at all to return.
“You are merciful, Speaker. We thank you.”
“Leave us,” she said. “I am tired of talking with this clumsy brownfolk tongue.” And then she opened her mouth wide and a slithering black shape emerged and fell to the floor. It was one of the eels, which flopped onto the platform and then threw itself off the edge and into the seething mass of its fellows below, where it entered the water with a plop and disappeared.
“Can we go now?” Rykall asked.
“Yes. Yes we can.”