Dredge hunted among green ribboning leaves for the purple tongues of hyssop, which he plucked and tossed in a pile of creambells and kidney-colored roses. Except for the strains of songbirds, it was quiet in the bog garden. The ghosts and wolves had faded with the night, and the creatures of day were still shaking dew-licked bodies and blinking stupidly at the sun. This was the time Dredge enjoyed most. When there was nobody around to—
Dredge jolted, crushing a coterie of petals in his hand, releasing a musk of mint. He glared at the brown spider on his shoulder. "For muck’s sake, Nook! Don't sneak up on me."
The spider stood very still and spoke again in a voice that sounded like a grown man with a beard imitating an adolescent girl. "There's someone coming. A boy-hero."
Dredge returned to the cull of his flowers, beheading those in full bloom and re-arranging them on the forest floor in red, white, and purple, although he was cautious now, an eye on the trees. "How do you know?"
"I received word from the Tame Lion,” said Nook. “A longlegs who stays in the corner window of Madeline the Mad (she keeps him for the flies and he stays there for the view) overheard the hero bragging about a prophecy to free the kingdom from a grave evil. I think he took the word grave literally.”
"So he wants to kill a necromancer?" said Dredge, thoughtfully. "What kind of hero?”
"A boy. Some fifteen years."
"Let me guess, a farmer?"
The spider was surprised. "How did you know?"
"Family was killed."
"His uncles and aunts were murdered by crow people—agents of a dark empire."
"Has a weapon of power?"
"A fire sword so sharp it can cut a horse in half by pointing at it."
"A Birthmark of Destiny?"
"Born with the word Destiny printed on his lower back. Do you know this boy?"
"No, but I know the trappings of a hero.”
"Should we summon the Hands and Teeth?
“Hmm.” Dredge pondered this. Then, gathering his flowers, he walked through the bog garden to a clearing punctuated by pools of algae bloom and crowned by old trees. In the center of the clearing was an oak, its spray of leaves creating the impression of a great turtle shell. Dredge climbed through a split in the tree to its interior—to a room coated in shelves of broken, moldy books and jars with labels like I think this is nightshade. Dredge took a tindertwig and lit an iron brazier; the twig cracking like a firework, emitting a red-blue flame. The brazier lit, Dredge heated a kettle then poured the steaming water into a shallow bowl, into which he sprinkled fresh-picked flower sheaf. Finally, task complete, Dredge sipped his tea, said “Hmm” once more, and peered through the break to the marsh. “Do you think if I stayed in here, he’d find me?”
“Probably not,” said the spider. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Stay in here."
"That may not be wise," said the spider. "If he stumbles on your door, you'll be cornered."
"Did the scouts say when the boy's to arrive?"
"Well," said the spider, tapping a leg on Dredge's shoulder. "It takes the longlegs about half an hour to reach Nuzzle in the cellar. You remember Nuzzle? Missing a couple legs. Likes hair."
"Right, right, right," said Dredge, sipping tea.
"Nuzzle dispatched fourteen scouts to carry the message. Just to reach the town boundary stones takes two hours. And the marsh is pandemonium for spiders. There's frogs and birds and squirrels. Squirrels, those bastards. The scouts were delayed by a sleeping hill giant. And then– and then, they were discovered."
"By a blue tit. It began to take the scouts as they crawled on the forest floor. They hid in a knot of a tree, only five scouts left, the blue tit sitting on a branch above, waiting. And they would have stayed there, only Wamble, you remember Wamble? He had those stripes on his rump that looked like a violin."
Dredge sipped his tea.
"Wamble said, 'Listen, men, our boglord is out there alone and defenseless. He doesn't know that there's a fifteen-year-old boy coming to kill him. We pledged him our lives—our souls.'"
"I never asked for either," said Dredge.
"'We must warn him. Or die trying.' Then Wamble distracted the blue tit by running out first, leading it away. The other scouts were able to make it out alive. Well, except for Balkis, who fell in a puddle. But if Wamble hadn't given us his life, if those scouts had not made their brave trek—"
"Right, right, but how long did it take for the spiders to reach us?"
"About three weeks."
"Three weeks!" shouted Dredge, dropping his tea. "That means he could be here already! We need to summon the Hands and Teeth!" The old necromancer leaped to his feet, interrupting the spider's petulant: "That's what I said." Taking an iron skull from the mantle, Dredge whispered into its eye, then brought it outside as smoke began to pour from its sockets. A green glint, like the flicker of a strange candle, flicked in its cavity. Dredge held the skull ahead of him, like an oil lantern, and in a cracking voice, said, "M-my Hands," coughed, and now in a deeper voice, "My Hands. My Teeth. Rise."
The patchwork of ponds tremored, becoming a lattice of ripples. Then black skulls emerged, bilious water pouring out of grim smiles. These skeletons had the countenance of puppets, except wiggling vines that had woven through their bones commanded their movements. Some carried rot-worn shields, or old brown swords, relics from an age of unrest. The creatures stomped out of the muck and stood about the necromancer, eyes quiet, betraying no sense of fear, only the calculating automation of undeath.
Dredge heard a manly shout from past the trees: "Necromancer!"
"Muck!" said Dredge. "If anything were ever to make me believe in the gods, it'd be my awful luck."
"Do not worry, boglord," said the spider. "I have a small army ready to take him out."
"By that forked tree over there. They'll drop off that lower bough when he passes underneath."
Dredge glimpsed brushstrokes of his enemy: a gleam of silver-green armor, a rustle of golden hair, a tall, armored silhouette. "But the boy's not going to pass by there."
"Oh," said the spider. "We didn't plan on that."
The boy appeared now, in the armor of a knight-errant, his sword leaping with yellow flames, a blue cape whispering behind him. "Necromancer," said the hero through gritted teeth, and Dredge could imagine what the boy was seeing: some twenty ghouls – the fodder things of a hero's quest – and a fell sorcerer behind them, a man with green skin the sheen of a plant stem, eyes white without pupils, almost pearls. A man wrapped in a tight brown monk's habit (although Dredge wore pants, having found a billowing skirt a detriment among the clawing roots of the forest), with a mustache that curled down into a chin-beard.
"I've come to ... smite ... guh ... you, you m-m-monster," stuttered the boy, and Dredge suddenly realized the hero was crying. Upon closer look, Dredge noted the boy’s face was coated in grime and tears, and some of his armor was missing or badly dented, and his undergarments, once a plain cotton, were stained in various shades of blood and mud, and he was missing a few fingers. The boy raised his sword toward Dredge, slipped to one knee, and vomited something black-and-green that looked like algae. When he spoke, he sounded drunk. "You've terrorized this ... swamp ... this hellhole ... for far too long." The sword dropped impotently from his nearly fingerless hand, blackened with gangrene, but the boy didn't notice. He pushed forward, lost his balance, smacked against a tree, and fell over – but the will was strong where the flesh (the horribly swamp-flayed flesh) was weak. "Your days are ... oh no ... oh gods ..." The boy's head dipped down, and he passed out.
Dredge pointed to the boy. "Bring him here." The Hands and Teeth creaked forward, and brought the boy to a stone table. It had once been used by the Old Religion to sacrifice youths of similar age, but now it was covered in alchemical vials and bowls of mashed leaves. "Clear it off." Dredge winced as the skeletons swiped the equipment onto the floor. "Gently," said Dredge, a little too late. "Now put him down." Then the skeletons dropped the boy on the table, and retreated.
“Let me bite him!” said the spider, on Dredge’s head now, jumping up and down. “C’mon! Let me at him.”
“I think a brown recluse is the least of his problems,” said Dredge, surveying the child. “Look here. A hobbleray licked his leg. And these rash stripes are from a strangler vine. These spines are melee-grove barbs and wow, he’s got bite marks from four different types of bear. This gauntlet was melted by a gelatinous ooze, I’m sure of it. And that pauldron was bitten by a basilisk – that’s why there’s so many bubbles in the metal. And is this mice? Mice bit him. A lot.”
“Don’t eat me,” croaked the boy.
“I don’t like leftovers,” said Dredge, plucking green spores growing on the boy’s neck and examining them closely. “I can cure you, but you must make an oath to me, on your heavenly virginity or something, that you will not try to smite me when I’m done.”
The boy nodded, and Dredge set to work like a gardener on a sour spot in the yard. Then for two days, the boy lay on the altar, mewing softly like an injured kitten, while Dredge drank his tea and waited.
When it was time, a vine-ghoul took the boy in its hands. Dredge touched the boy on his forehead, leaving a small, black dot, and told him, “Come back to kill me when you’re older. All right?” The boy put out his hands and Dredge recoiled. “I’m– I’m not going to hug you.” To the Hands and Teeth, Dredge said, “Carry him to the Tame Lion. He’ll have a fever for a few days, and Madeline's syphilis for the rest of his life, but he’ll be fine.”
The battle over, Dredge went back into the garden.