Tending to the creature’s hurts required us to spend two days camped at the largest patch of dry land we could find, which could scarcely hold us and our horses, but which was at least blessedly free of danger. Other than the birds which remained curious about Shadryn and came to watch her almost constantly, the creatures of the muck left us alone, while she passed the hours fashioning curious mixtures of herbs and mud and applying them to the lurker’s broken leg. Her treatments resembled my mother’s healing arts almost not at all, and she explained, when she could spare a few moments from her ministrations, that a creature more of plant than animal needed different salves, but was capable of recovering from more grave injuries, just as a tree might recover from a blow that would fell a man.
The delay did not please me. I was eager to find dry land once more, and to reach our destination. While I would never admit it to Lady Shadryn, I was myself eager for a warm meal and a pint of ale in a public house, and perhaps even a soft bed. Autumn would be coming soon, and I did not relish the idea of being forever damp in these fens as the nights grew colder. But there was no swaying her; Shadryn was determined to nurse this bog lurker to health. At the last, we came to a compromise; she described a sort of sling that might let her carry the beast while she hiked, and later when we rode again, and I set Radolf to crafting such a thing.
“Then will you bring this creature with you all the way to Bree, and keep it as a pet?” I asked her in a tone almost mocking, but clearly not serious.
“Perhaps I should,” she answered, and I wasn’t sure if she was teasing or not. “But it was not my intent. I expect it will be well enough to walk within a fortnight, perhaps sooner if my intuition about tinctures of sweet flag is correct, and then I plan to set it free to return to its home.”
I grunted in assent, relieved, but my eye caught a glimmer of red light, dancing from the gem to the lurker, unsettling and mysterious.
For as much ground as we could cover in these fens, we might as well have stayed at that camp. Day followed day, and we could never be sure if we’d advanced. The mist-shrouded ruins of Tharbad emerged from the morning fog in the distance, but however we walked, they seemed to grow no nearer, and afforded surprisingly little guidance in choosing directions. Shadryn seemed unperturbed, walking with her creature hanging before her as if in swaddling clothes, or clinging to her back; but I was growing frustrated, and also worried that we had lost the path entirely. What an ignominious end, to be lost forever wandering in a maze of rivulets and mud-hillocks, after surviving so many perils.
Though she continued to insist that it was her intent to let the bog-lurker go free when it could walk, Shadryn clearly was becoming attached to it. And to the extent that a moss-covered bole with spindly branch-legs could, the creature seemed to reciprocate, making that odd clicking purr more often when she treated its injuries or hefted it into its sling.
While she was examining the creature for injuries, she was forever making observations about its composition. For a creature made primarily of wood, as if cobbled from the makings of trees, bushes, grasses, and moss, it was surprisingly soft, particularly on the lower part of its main body, where the gangly branch-legs emerged from the compact, rounded body. Its upper surface appeared softer at a first glance, covered as it was with a downy grass from which small cattails emerged, but beneath this was a hard layer of bark, from which rose a spindly spike of heartwood. A bird might perch comfortably on the creature’s back, and in fact, many did.
It was while she was describing the creature’s curious composition that Shadryn brought up the idea of giving it a name, an idea which I resisted; if she named it, she might be less inclined to let it go when the time came. She took my reluctance as a challenge, though I’m not sure if she was being stubborn, or simply teasing. Sometimes these became one thing for her, and even she didn’t know where one ended and the other began. When, in exasperation, I threw my hands up and gave up trying to convince her not to give it a name, rather than accepting this victory gracefully, she continued to tease me. “I think I’ll call it Mushiebottom,” she said, “on account of it having a bottom that’s soft, all downy moss,” and as she said it, she watched me to relish my exasperation at such an undignified choice. I think she was only kidding at first, but that fey mood was still hung about her, stubborn and teasing in equal measure, and the more I wracked my brain for refined names, perhaps with a horticultural basis given the creature’s botanical nature, the more she dug her heels in and kept calling it Mushiebottom, clearly delighed at my reaction. “You always overthink these things,” she insisted, a criticism which drew me up short; I turned away, silently, and stalked off to brood over this characterization.