Ronan slapped at his neck and cursed.
'If another one of these feckin' mosquitoes bites me--'
'Look, it's your own fault,' Sara said. She rolled her eyes while her fingers nimbly drew the feathered fragments of the fishing net together again. 'I offered the bug spray, but nooo--'
'I break out in a rash when I used that stuff,' Ronan grumbled and pulled the collar of his shirt closer. 'Why do you think I'm wearing long sleeves?'
'I dunno,' Sara bit off the thread and examined her work. 'Just thought you liked to sweat. This should do well enough for now.' She tossed the net over to Ronan and made for the boat.
Around them, cicadas hummed their emphatic evening chorus. The trees branched above with benevolent care, fracturing the purpling sky with greens and browns and faded yellows. This was their place. The sun wouldn't set for another two or three hours at that time in the summer, and it still hung like a ripe orange in the fuchsia-streaked evening sky over the still-water of the gulf.
Some people said that if you squinted, you could make out the other side, but Sara had never been able to. Too many patrol boats, too many corpse-catchers, too many fisheries pulled their iron weight through the water and fouled the air enough to see much beyond a few miles.
She carefully placed her right foot onto the knee of the cypress behind her. It was always safer to wait for dark, but the fish preferred nibbling the line when it was still light. And the village hadn’t had fresh fish in over a week.
She felt more than heard Ronan position himself across from her in the shadow of the trees.
'One,' she whispered. 'Two--'
They pushed out and leapt into the rowboat with practiced silence, sliding between the shadows of the boughs overhead and the knobbly protrusions of the knees poking out of the water like the confused heads of petrified fish. In the woods, they afforded a certain amount of safety, but out in the gulf... The boat was just wide and long enough that the two of them could lie flat, and pulled a battered tarp over them just to be safe. Sara heard a splash that could have been a trout or a tarpon, but nothing big enough to cause them trouble. She hoped.
Ronan poked his head over the rim of the boat.
'What are you--' she hissed.
'We're clear,' he said and sat up fully. He smiled and winked. 'I told you we'd be grand.'
'I'll give you grand,' Sara muttered. 'Hand me the net.'
Together they attached a line to the mesh and hurtled it out into the water.
'We might catch more if we went out a bit further,' Ronan said. Even with no big ships around, they spoke in low voices. 'We'd see them coming long before they--'
'We stick to the brackish,' she told him. 'Come on, I don't have the energy to argue about this again--'
Under the relative cover of the coast, where the water still eddied in in browns and cremes, where the snapping turtles and flat-headed catfish hid in their burrows beneath the gnarled trees, the boat would remain mostly hidden. The mottled tattoos criss-crossing their arms in brown and green waves helped as well, particularly for Ronan whose pink, sunburnt skin, when it poked out from beneath his shirt, stood out like a beacon. Sara's darker skin fared better.
They moved quietly over the water, and met little more than a few confused whitebait jumping at the ripples they drew behind them. After an hour of seeing little on the coastline, the boat suddenly rocked -- not in the gentle, lapping rock of water pushing against wood, but the awkward bump of something not meant to be there.
'What was that?' Ronan hissed. The two of them peered around, trying to pull apart the dark water by sight.
'It's not the net,' Sara whispered. She pulled at the line gently, but only the gentle weight of a few fish tugged back.
The rock came again, this time from the opposite side.
Ronan grabbed their only spear and tested the fritzing pit of electronics at the end of it. Sara was searching the gulf around them with a frown nestled in the corner of her mouth.
'If it's the pitchforks--'
'It's not the pitchforks,' she said. 'We'd have seen the launch boats -- those subs are useless jumping off in shallow water.'
The vibrant green of the cypress leaves were fading to gilded black. The sun had dipped its mandarin feet into the edge of the gulf's wide waters and begun pulling the world towards sleep, even as the cicadas’ song swelled. The boat was rolling in the waves, caused by something unseen--
'The launch boats--'
'Pull in the line--'
'You’ll sink us!'
The boat rocked again, and to their left two swollen grey hulls broke the coverlet of the briny water. A cat's long whiskers tickled the surface, and above them, the black doe-eyes of a cow.
'Oh holy hell,' Sara breathed into her hands and sat back in the boat. Ronan started to laugh the high, breathy giggle of someone fighting back adrenaline.
'Manatees!' he laughed into his hands. The big sea cows bobbed placidly and, having seen what they came to see, gently made their way along the coastline to where their vegetation grew. Their faces were caught in polite, perpetual smiles, and their tails barely splashed as they moved. 'The amount of times we've been caught by manatees--'
'I'm getting too old for this,' Sara ran her hands through her hair. 'Let's get out of here before something with teeth shows up.'
'Wait,' Ronan swallowed a laugh and wiped his eyes. 'Sara, there--'
In their distraction, a great grey smudge had begun to grow on the far horizon. Even as they watched, it doubled, two huge and menacing shapes growing larger as they headed towards the small boat.
Sara cursed and began pulling in the line. 'Help me get this up!'
The two of them pulled, feeling the weight of their catch straining their shoulders and arching their backs.
'For once I wish we hadn't caught a damn thing,' Ronan said through his teeth. The sun was sinking lower.
'Tell that to Elder Joseph when we show up with nothing to feed anyone--'
They strained and stretched and like a balloon bursting, a full net of slithering silvery fish toppled into and nearly capsized their little boat.
'Move!' Sara said. 'Grab the oars!'
Her heart cracked like a whip in her chest. She saw how the pull of the open water had dragged them out from under the protective canopy of the cypress trees and left them exposed. The damn sea cows might have cost them.
Ronan and Sara fell into their practiced places and dragged themselves across the water. Backs to safety, they watched with growing dread rising in their throats as the enormous ships of the Greater Riding burned towards them. They trailed black smoke like pennants, and called out across the gulf with the butchered, wailing horns of their red bulls.
'Maybe they haven't seen us,' Ronan whispered. Even under the paint, his pale skin had faded to a deathly white.
'You have the spear to hand, yeah?' she asked. He nodded and stopped his rowing, taking it up in his left hand. Sara nodded and fished out the one thing she'd hoped she'd never have to use and clutched it like a talisman.
They were no match for the demon boats, travelling at speeds no one could counter on sea or on land, the means by which even the woods’ most talented metallurgists and engineers had yet to understand. The shark-headed boats pulled towards them with silver bows streaked in black soot, and scarab-cloaked soldiers stood at the ready.
They had just reached the shadows of the trees' outstretched arms, but it was too late. One of the patrol boats that followed the coal ships like cleaner fish shot out now from between and behind, and it curled round Sara and Ronan.
A man called out to them in that strange slithering, barking language of theirs:
'You and your catch have been convicted of poaching in national fishery waters,' the translation boomed over his personal intercom, clipped to his collar like a dead star. 'You will be brought into custody and your catch will be confiscated. If you cooperate, there is not reason for anyone to be harmed--'
Ronan threw the spear through the speaker's chest. It came out the other side and sparked in the spurt of blood, sending cinders raining down over the deck of the patrol boat that threatened to electrify the men and women running around the quickening corpse in shrieking disarray.
'Make for the trees!' Ronan hissed and Sara plunged her hand into the water at the back of the boat. The surface roiled and bubbled and spat, and a light began to glow from beneath. The boat surged forward as arrows, trailing wide sailor’s ropes, rained down around them. Four managed to lodged themselves in the splintering sides of their dingy and held fast. The patrol boat creaked and began to tip, but Sara's magic managed to pull both ships forward beneath the arch of the trees.
'Do not attempt escape!' Someone else shouted. 'Stay away from the trees!'
'Quick, we'll swim for it,' Sara said. Ronan nodded and both of them jumped into the shallows--
A net folded around them like gossamer lightning and pulled them under. Sara fought to breath, she kicked but couldn’t extend her legs -- she pulled the light from her hand towards her face--
Then they were being hoisted up onto the boat and thrown onto the deck. The man Ronan killed was congealing a few feet away.
A woman wearing an officer's uniform strode up to them and ripped the net open with practiced hands. She crouched down beside them and looked them in the eye.
'I wanted to get a good look at you,' she said. Her tiny translator flashed red on her lapel. 'Before we feed you to the rays.'
Sara spat in her face and the woman recoiled. Immediately lower level soldiers hoisted the two of them up under their arms, and orders were shouted. The woman wiped the smear from her face and looked at them with undisguised hate.
'You poachers are all the same,' she muttered.
'Sir-' someone shouted. The woman looked at her hand and saw that it was faintly glowing.
Around the boat, the water of the brackish continued to bubble. The trees caught themselves up in a great wind that came, not from the open water, but from deep in the wood. The cicadas shrieked, the black crickets hissed, and the birds of the forest called out in one screaming song.
'Reverse us out of here,' the officer was shouting. 'Leave their damn boat and get us out--'
But the water was pulling the patrol boat deeper under the trees. The shadows grew, and it seemed as though the sun itself sank faster. The crowd on the larger boats called out, but they could not enter the shallows -- and the other patrols found themselves suddenly uncertain.
'What is this?' the officer was shrieking. She was pawing at her face and her hand as her skin began to smoke where the glowing substance had hit her. Soldiers were running in blurs of grey and navy round the boat, and vines from the cypress swamp seemed to suddenly be jamming their antennas and their propellers--
Ronan felt the grip on his arms loosening in panic. He threw back his arms and flipped over the two sailors, sending one spilling to the ground and the other sliding overboard and into the churning froth. Sara swung herself around one of her jailers while Ronan took down the other--
A gator launched itself out of the water, all ancient, scaled, angled limbs and gluttonous mouth, and snapped its teeth around one unlucky soldier as the boat rocked. They disappeared like lovers under the water, with little more than a quiet splash.
The crew had broken. They ran in all directions, shouting, crying--
'Secure them!' the officer was still screaming, even as her face was turning red and welted. 'Secure--'
A clutter of swollen, yellow banana spiders dropped on unseen threads from the trees and began crawling into the unwanted places in the soldiers’ uniforms. Pandemonium rolled over the ship in a wave of horror and adrenaline. Still, the shadows of the trees pulled them deeper.
Ronan had already retrieved his spear from where he'd lost it and he and Sara ran for the side of the boat. Something snagged Sara's leg though, and she stumbled. She turned and saw a hand, and the hand shook with fright, and she found herself looking into the face of the officer, burned and wracked with spiders.
The woman shouted at the poachers through her own terror, words that made sense and others that didn't. They could see the larger warships pulling away, leaving the wounded to flounder in the shallows.
'Why!' she was screeching insensibly. 'Why are you -- why are you doing t-this--'
Sara crouched low, ignoring for just a moment the look of haste in Ronan’s eyes. A glow like that of the magic she'd used coiled up behind her gaze, and the officer saw how the poacher’s sharp canines perched behind the her lips.
'Didn't your mother never tell you?' Sara whispered, and felt the laughter bubbling in her chest.
'Never, ever, go into the woods.'
From the broad hammered ships now slipping back into the safety of the deeper gulf, no one could make out if the two figures that seemed to fall into the water were living or dead, enlisted or poachers. But they would never forget the sight, of how the crablike cypress trees rose on spiderous limbs and crawled over the patrol boat, and how easily and carelessly they cracked it in two. And how the grey carcass had sunk into the brackish with a last murmur of soldiers’ screams and a hiss of twisted steel.
They would mark the loss down in their ledgers, and perhaps refrain from telling the families all of the details. They'd tell them their loved ones were lost in a mining accident at sea, or in an explosion offshore.
No one needed to know about the woods, or about the people who tended the trees.
Not yet, anyway.