Frogs croak at sundown in the bogs. That’s when she took visitors. I heard their chorus and quickened my pace. Each high-knee step took me closer to her, but burned deeper into my thighs and abdomen. My feet grew more tender with each step. My pack was light, but two days traipsing through a swamp was enough to exhaust me. A week trekking down the mountain, and my bones hurt. My lungs burned too, like a hot coal singeing my insides.
I reached for my canteen–the old stainless steel one I had plucked from the corpse of a long dead soldier, but found it empty. The marsh water was bitter and unfit to drink. I searched for a sign of the village, a lantern, a column of smoke, voices.
I’d yet to see any of the Witch's sentinels, but I knew I was close–they’d probably been watching me for miles. I had been assured that they wouldn’t kill me, the red scarf arround my neck indicated to the queen of the Bog that I was an ambassador, a messenger from the mountains, that I come bearing gifts.
Her gift was still there, lashed to my belt with the strongest cord I could find. And no matter how thirsty I was, I wouldn’t drink it. I glanced down at the bottle, the clear liquid gleamed in the fading light. I prayed that it was enough, that she’d accept the gift, accept me. That, perhaps, my efforts would not be in vain, and that the curse would be lifted. I didn’t know what my village had done to incur her wrath to begin with, but she demanded a vial of the crystal clear waters of our spring as a peace offering, a necessary ingredient to whatever new potion she was concocting no doubt, yet they urged me to deliver it to her regardless.
“A small price to pay for peace,” my people had said. They were tired of bearing the dead. So was I.
But would it end there?
I pressed on, despite my exhuastion. Swamp scum swirled around me in mirky vortexes of green. The waters shallowed, and the mosquitoes and yellow flies ambushed me as the swamp dripped away from me onto the mucky forest floor. When the moon rose, and the night had become so dark I could not see, I took a rag soaked in pine resin from the mountains of my village, and tied it around a bundle of wetland rattanvines. One spark from my flint, and a ring of orange light burst onto the trees around me, scattering shadows in every direction.
I was not alone.
The Bog Witch’s sentinels aimed their spears at me, but they did not attack. I flailed the red scarf above my head like a banner, just to be sure they knew I was the messenger. No one spoke, no orders were shouted but two men stepped forward simultaneously, took me by the arm, and ushered me through the brush. Thick palmettos parted, and there it was–the village.
The men guided me along a board walk, it creaked beneath us as we weaved passed dozens of stilted huts. A woman hurried her child back inside, a man fileting catfish followed me with a watchful eye. The denizens were more cautious and downcast than I’d have expected from a people led by such a powerful queen. A silhouette loomed at the end of the boardwalk, it was a yurt of simple construction but broad and tall. Thatched double doors–guilded with bone talismans and guarded by unusually large men–opened as we approached. None of the mosquitos followed me inside.
The smell of burning incense, torches, and smoked meat filled the room. I saw a throne in the dim firelight–the skin of an alligator draped ocross its backrest and wicker vines sprouting from its base like roots. A figure, obscured by the smog, rose up. It was the Bog Witch.
She wore a crown of teeth that pinned her hair into wavy black columns, like wisps of smoke.
When she spoke, her voice sounded harsh and damaged, yet somehow youthful. Like fruit not yet ripe, but ravaged by flies while still on the tree.
“You are the messenger from the mountains?” She said. “The water bearer?”
One of my escorts shoved me forward. I stumbled and caught myself.
“I am,” I said. “I have brought the spring water you requested–as clear as crystal.” I unlashed the bottle, and held it up. Orange torchlight splashed in the glass–bewitchingly beautiful.
She leaned forward in her throne, the whites of her eyes materializing in the smoke. “It is pure?”
“It is,” I said, “very much so.”
She made a gesture to the guards, “Bring it to me.”
“Hold!” I commanded, as I removed the lid from the bottle. “This settles things then?” The guards froze, looking to their queen for instruction. “You will lift the curse, the same spell that took so many lives?”
The witch didn’t speak. I tilted the glass, a threat. She needed it, I knew that much. Still, she said nothing.
“You will undo whatever evil you cast on my people?”
The sentinels inched there way closer, and still she said nothing.
“You will relent of the suffering you’ve subjected us to? My family to, my daughter…”
The smoke thinned for a moment, and I saw her face in the lull; White teeth exposed in sinister satisfaction, her eyes resolved and unyielding.
“That’s what I thought.” I said, “you lied.” I raised the bottle above my head, smiled, then hurled it at the queen.
The glass shattered against her jaw, showering her and her throne. A guard gasped, and the room fell silent. The queen held her jaw, blood dripping through her fingers, eyeing me in disbelief.
“Well,” I said, yanking a torch from the wall, “I lied too. That isn’t water, it’s vodka.”
One spark from the torch and the throne burned like the dawning sun.
The frogs weren’t croaking anymore.