Rugg the spellbreaker was only passing through the Devil’s Palm on his way down to the coast, where he hoped to find his mother. He’d have avoided Ganvill, except he was running low on boom powder and salt, and the little settlement was the last tame place before a lot of nowhere.

The swamp was on fire, pollen clouds burning gold in the sun’s last rays as Rugg rode into Ganvill on his gator, Tugboat. Tugboat let out a silent growl, and it rumbled into Rugg’s bones. Even the tamest gators didn’t like the sight of so many men and women with gigs and spears. Seemed to Rugg that the vill’s people were in a nasty mood, or maybe they hated strangers. They watched him, their knuckles white around the hafts of their crude weapons, their eyes—bleary and red from the pollen—shifting between the boomflute on his back and the sunflower hat on his head.

“No trouble,” he said, loud and clear so all would hear, as Tugboat started crawling onto the dock of what looked to be the vill’s longshack. No one stopped them. No one said a word. Just kept watching. And they were still watching as Tugboat settled onto his belly, his forty-hand length making the timbers creak.

“Tugboat’s a good gator,” Rugg said, again loud enough for all to hear. “My momma’s word, no snap in him.”

“Ain’t the gator got us riled, Mister,” said one of the locals, a thickset fella who let his impressive hairy gut trail over the edge of his loincloth.

Rugg realized what they were staring at now—his scarf had fallen just enough to reveal part of the crossed-knife symbol scarred into his throat; the mark of a soldier in the king’s army. The king and his army may have been gone and dead, but folk were slow to forget bullies.

He pulled his scarf back up. As if it would help now as they’d seen it. There were ten men and half as many women out on their floating porches, all armed, all waiting for an excuse to get stupid. He stared them down as the wind rattled the strung chicken bones hanging from the longshack’s beams—crude charms against sour conja. All the other houses had them too. Now that was interesting—usually such charms meant want of a spellbreaker like him.

As Rugg climbed off Tugboat and stepped onto the dock, the villfolk closed ranks. Only one dared approach him, though. The big-gut fella, who left his spear in the care of a friend and squared up, all chest and fist.

He was taller than Rugg, which wasn’t common, and once-and-a-half as wide of shoulder, but it took more than size to big-bull Rugg around.

“What you come for, Mister?” the man growled, pushing his sweaty bald forehead into Rugg’s, tipping the brim of his hat back.

Rugg met his eyes and didn’t see any of the cruelty or meanness he saw in rough types. What he saw was fear—not fear of Rugg, but fear of something terrible. The same fear that put up all the little stick charms.

Rugg took a half step back. “Easy, friend.”

The big man didn’t advance, nor did he back off. “Who’s friend?”

The door to the longshack opened, and a new man fella stepped out. Pale, well-fed, and vested with the chain of a vill headman.

This new fella whistled like to break ears. “Loop Garvy, step away from that man fore he does something bout your face.”

The big fella, Loop, still glaring, nostrils still flaring like a bull ready to charge, , backed off and cleared a path for Rugg.

“Name’s Pong,” the new fella announced to Rugg. “I’m headman here. Who’s you?”

“Rugg. I’m a spellbreaker.”

Pong’s narrow dark eyes lit up. “What you here for?”

“Need salt and boom powder.”

“Is that so, Mister Rugg? Well, happens we need a spellbreaker.” Pong opened the door to the longshack and beckoned Rugg inside. “Let’s do drink and talk some. You too, Loop—you’ll drink with this man and ask his pardon.”

Loop, his hands still fists, looked between Rugg and the headman and then shrugged his shoulders and let his fingers go slack. The longer Rugg saw him, the less threat he felt from him, and the more he felt sorry. Man looked like he hadn’t slept in days.

“If you’re pouring, I’m buying,” Rugg announced. He followed the men in.

Rugg liked Pong. He poured strong hooch and spoke in a quiet voice. Straight-haired, roundfaced, with small, serious eyes and a trusty voice was Pong. His smooth hairless stomach shimmered under the blue light of the burnworm lamp. He dressed like everyone else in Ganvill—loincloth and vest, only he wore a copper chain around his neck to mark his authority. It was good to see a headman with mud under his nails when so many were leeches.

For the first few drinks, no one spoke. Though Loop still watched Rugg with distrust from across the headman’s table, the anger in him had cooled. Now he looked like he wanted to melt into mush and be anything but awake and here.

“Those charms on the eaves,” Rugg began. “Some trouble here?”

Pong nodded, grimly. “Sour conja trouble.”

“That why them all out there were ready to gut me? They think I did it?”

“We know you ain’t a witch, Mister,” Loop said. “It’s what else you is burns the blood.”

Rugg gave him a steady look. “I know lot of soldiers brought awfulness to little vills like this. I wasn’t one of those. Served in the king’s guard. Never stole any woman’s chickens or goosed any man’s daughter.”

“Was that before or after you became a spellbreaker?” Pong asked, refilling both of the men’s cups. Loop downed his in one gulp; Rugg only sipped.

“Wasn’t one before the other. Daddy taught me to soldier, momma taught me about witches. Enough about me—what’s the trouble here?”

“My kids’re sick, dying,” Loop said, full of heat again.

Pong waved him quiet. “Let me tell it. Started up two weeks back. Started with a funny taste in the water. Sourlike. Then it got worser. Folks here are bothered by it all. Scared.”

“Sure it’s sour conja, not just bad luck?”

Rugg had to ask these things. Every other vill he stopped in, someone was convinced a sour conjawitch had spelled them or their crops; usually it was just the work of an angry neighbor. So few understood conja for what it was— magic as could be good or bad, sweet or sour; just like people. His mother had taught him that, and she’d have known: she’d been both. Sweet conja healed wounds and cured sickness and protected the weak and helpless. Sour conja—well, that took an evil heart. Or an angry one, at least.

All doubt died when Loop brought over something wrapped in a blanket and revealed what was inside. A thing as’d once been a dog. Could hardly tell now—it had four legs and a tail, but otherwise it looked more like a piece of dried fruit harvested from the bough of a monstrous tree.

“Good dog as ever been, was poor Poot,” Loop said. “There’s the chickens, too—every day another turns inside out, all guts instead of feathers. And that ain’t half—I got a girlchild and a boywhelp, both of them deathly sick.”

Rugg shook his head. “I’m sorry. It’s an awful thing to hurt children.”

“If and when I find who’s done it...” Loop left it at that.

Pong gave Loop a pat on the back and refilled his cup. “We got a healer, same as put up the charms, but none of her usual cures are helping. We figure it’s a witch needs killing. Whatever your cost, I’ll pay it.”

Loop nodded to Pong, face full of gratitude. “Whatever the cost,” he agreed.

Rugg finished his drink. “I’ll help your vill. And if there’s a sour witch needs killing, I’ll see to it.”

As payment, Pong offered three weights each of guano and yellowrock for mixing boomdust, then pointed to the way of the dying sun and spoke of a shack with a roof tiled with turtle shells, where he believed the conjawitch lived.

Tugboat grumbled like an old man as Rugg mounted him up. The villfolk were looking different at him now as they knew what he was about. Looking at him now with something like hope.

It rained after duskfall. Tugboat didn’t mind, of course, but for Rugg it went badder and worser until he felt close to drowning. The swamp was stubborn in this part of Perish, what folks in the bigger vills called “the Devil’s Palm.” Slow going, wet going. He would not find the shack tonight.

He was ready to turn back and try to make Ganvill when a bright dot of light appeared through the churning murk of the storm: a campfire. Never trust a light too bright in a dark hole, the speaking goes, but then Rugg smelled roasting meat. And then he heard the flute. A sweet, sad little song, a flutter of music. Bone flutes had a tone distinct from those carved of wood or reed; lonelier, somehow.

A sweet breath of music sighing out to the wild.

Rugg left Tugboat at the water’s edge and approached with care. It was a woman tending the fire, camped under a lean-to made from sticks and giant’s ear palm fronds. No, not a woman. He realized this as he came close enough to see the face behind the fire. It was a young man, graceful and sapling slender, with the delicate frame of a songbird. Pale skin, a long, pointed chin, dark eyes rimmed in charcoal swooshes like raven wings, hair black and straight like a horse’s tail. A prettyboy made prettier by the fire he tended and the swamp rats sizzling from the spit above it. Some warm food would be nice before tangling with a witch. And maybe some handsome company too.

Don’t you do what I think you’re about to do, Rugg, Rugg heard himself mutter. But he knew he would. Just like he knew from the feel in his bones when it would rain.

Rain dripped down Rugg’s neck as he stood at the shelter’s edge, watching the stranger as the stranger watched back, still playing the flute. It was made of bone all right; looked like the arm bone of a person. The boy lowered his flute. His forearms were wrapped in loose blue sleeves that cut off at the elbow, which taken together with the blue paint smeared on his lips told plain enough he was mourning somebody.

“Hunker, won’t you?” the young man said. “Dry your feet.”

It was always important to be invited. Rugg gladly accepted, coming to sit on the other side of the blaze, to dry himself in the warmth.

“Win,” the young man said, pointing to himself with the flute.


“Your gator. Does he want to join us?”

As if he could understand (and Rugg was never sure he couldn’t), Tugboat started bumbling over the brush, dragging his great bulk through the mud until his long handsome snout with all its teeth lay at the young man’s feet. Win gave Tugboat a stroke under the chin, just where he liked it, and the ground trembled with his happy rumble.

“He likes you.”

“I notice there’s no saddle on him. Don’t it hurt to ride him bare?”

“Comfort ain’t much to me.”

“Comfort ain’t much to me,” Win repeated, imitating Rugg’s deep burr. “Foo. That kind of bigboy talk ever work on anyone?”

And he’s sharp-tongued too. You’re in trouble, Rugg.


While Win was distracted giving Tugboat a rub, Rugg used his chance to test him, drawing his bleedydoll out from his pouch and holding it low, out of sight. If there was sour conja near, the bleedydoll—carved from waxroot in the shape of a little girlchild—would bleed out its eyes and ears. But it stayed dry. He put it away, letting go a lungful of worry as he did.

“Are you hungry, Rugg?” Win asked.

The rat was stringy, but when rubbed with the summerberries Rugg kept in his bag, it went down fine. Win also shared his stew of beans and swamp cabbage while Rugg contributed a few hunks of stale cornbrick. By the time they were done eating, the rains had stopped and Tugboat had gone off to wallow. With the clouds parting, a purple dusk opened up. Both pieces of the moon were out tonight, one low, the other high; they looked just a little like two mismatched eyes, hemmed half-shut by the bruised flesh of the night around them. Win put a pot of water on the fire and started boiling tea. Rugg watched what he put in—just some common roots and leaves.

Win was an easy fella. Voice soft and mellow. He dressed down to almost nothing, only a loincloth and a loose vest as hardly covered any skin. He wasn’t rashy with skeeter bites as most were in these parts, probably because he rubbed himself in the fragrant oil of duskflowers. Rugg kept finding his eyes drawn to a tattoo on Win’s hairless taut belly: a broken circle. Whenever he caught himself staring, he’d drag his eyes somewhere else—usually Win’s feet, clean of mud and pinksoled, or his face, which was always smiling. There was something so fresh in Win, like finding the one uncrushed flower in a trampled field. Rugg hadn’t been lying when he said he wasn’t much for comfort, but that didn’t mean he didn’t like what made him feel good. And there was nothing as good as the knitting of two bodies under a clear starry sky.

“Where you from, Rugg?” Win asked after a time. They were both of them trying not to stare at the other now. Not that it was working for either.

“Born in Greatvill.”

Win’s head fell a bit. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

Rugg knew what he meant. Win was sorry because Greatvill was an ashpile now, along with a few horizons of forest and swamp that once surrounded it, burnt up by those monsters who’d swept in through the Steadlands from out of the sunset. Pale like cavefish—much paler even than Win—and big and ugly with beastly teeth and weapons like boomflutes only much deadlier, riding on grunting beasts of metal and flying on great birds of steel, raining fiery death upon the land. Murrka. That was what their allies of the New Nation had called the monsters. It was a hideous word that suited the creatures well.

The brandmark itched under his scarf. He resisted the urge to scratch. Win’s attention had changed, settled now on the coiled dragrope at Rugg’s side. The recognition was there, but then most folks could spot a dragrope with its braided weave of pale moonflax and dark muckdeer hair. A thick rope woven to choke out conja when tied hard around a witch’s throat.

“So what brung you here?” Win asked. “Spellbreakers ain’t so common these days.”

There was nothing strange at being recognized, what with the dragrope coiled at his hip. But it still made him nervy. “What’s saying I ain’t just wandering?”

Win just shook his head like he knew that wasn’t it.

Rugg considered lying, but he’d never been a good liar, and Win seemed too sharp to dupe. So he told it as was. “Supposed to be a witch around here. You know anything about that?”

Win looked down, and his eyes filled with the fire’s glow. “I’m the wrong person to ask. I hold my head low to such things.”

“Sour conja don’t care if you heed it or not. You hold your head low to floods too?”

“I hold my head low; so far the world ain’t killed me, Mister Rugg.”

“You live here. You must know something.”

“We all live in the world. Don’t mean we know its ways.”

That was true enough, if unhelpful. Rugg let it drop—most folks didn’t like talking about conja. Easy to get fearful, especially as the sour conjawitches were known to have little spies everywhere in the swamps. Probably the witch already knew Rugg was coming for her.

There was silence for a time. They watched each other through the smoke. Of a sudden, Win got to laughing.

“Something funny?”

“No,” Win said. He settled down onto his side on the mossy ground, leaning on one elbow. “Just realized you’re the second fella I’ve ever met with blue eyes.”

“Is that so?”

“Like morning glories. Know who the other one was?”

He meant the king. Not someone Rugg wanted to think about now. Or ever.

“Don’t know anything about that.”

“King came through here when I was a boy, on one of his big tours of the land. Folks fell over themselves fawning, but I saw him and thought he was ugly as all. Pale as a frog’s belly and teeth like a gator’s. But you ain’t pale. Ain’t ugly neither.”

He wasn’t wrong. The king was an ugly man, monstrous really, just like the pale invaders he resembled, and Rugg was lucky enough to take after his mother instead. All except the eyes.

“Kind words.”

Maybe it was the fireglow, but Win’s face was rosy, and his ears were flushed red with eagerness. “You travel lots?”

Rugg wanted to forget everything, even if just for a moment.


“Must leave a trail of brokenhearted gals.”

“Not just gals.”

Win’s foot had started to brush the bare skin of Rugg’s leg where the mud had crusted. Rugg took hold of his slender ankle—soft like antlervelvet off a yearling buck—and gave it a squeeze. “This what I think it is?”

“You want it to be?”

When Rugg took Win into his arms, the slender fella shivered and started breathing like his lungs were dry.

“First time?”

“With a spellbreaker, yes.”

The moss carpeting the clearing was soft from the rain. Rugg savored each shudder, each gasp, each sudden flush of breath into the slender chest beneath his, the glory of a bruised-eye dusk wheeling overhead, the musk of flower oil and moss and swamptea gone to boil flooding his nose and seeping into the buds on his tongue.

They took their tea from a shared cup. Rugg didn’t even mind the skeeters getting their draw of blood from his bare back.

Morning came dry and too bright and already hot. Rugg woke up, trousers on but belt unfastened, his vest and shirt—soaked through with the sweat from his head—balled up like a pillow under his head.

Win was gone, the fire a stain of ash on the mossy ground. But the clay cup was still there, brimming with a last gulp of swamp tea long gone cold. It went down bitter, but still good.

He was relieved to be alone. He’d feared earlier Win might have clung, but that never ended well for anyone who Rugg got sweet on. Either something terrible happened to them, or they’d get to know Rugg well enough to want him gone. As he gathered up his gear—checking first to make sure nothing had gone missing, chiding himself for falling asleep first in a stranger’s company—he wondered if Win had left during the middle of the night, when Rugg tended to have his sleep-screams. Night terrors he never remembered on waking; night terrors he had to imagine were born of the invaders and what he’d seen them do.

He found Tugboat waiting in the water. The gator only had the one good eye, but somehow, he always managed to express complicated moods. Right now, he was full of judgement.

“Nothing lost, just a little time,” Rugg said.

“Rrrr,” Tugboat rumbled.

“I ain’t crying. Won’t even think about him after tomorrow.”


“Yeah? Well, you got a mouth full of stupid.”


He hated when Tugboat expressed the same thing he was already thinking. Tugboat was right that he was too quick to get caught up in a pretty face and a soft set of lips, but then what did an old bull gator know about that? More concerning was that in the time he’d lost spent with Win, the witch might’ve sniffed him out and run off.

Most spellbreakers Rugg had known approached witches with a simple purpose: kill, no questions asked, no risks taken, no time wasted. Rugg didn’t like that way. He’d sneak up best he could, get through the witch’s protections, find her, get the dragrope on her, then figure why she was hurting the villfolk and what was to be done. His way was harder, but it felt right—it was what momma taught him.

Rugg put the lead in Tugboat’s jaws and mounted up, pushing on along the way he’d been going before the night rain stopped them. Didn’t take long to find signs of dwelling. First it was cut trees. Then it was berry patches, clearly tended, the ground swept under them, and fresh ashes sprinkled around their roots.

Then came the conja. Woven chicken bone cages hanging on string from the branches, etchings in the tree trunks, piled stones. Conja, at its simplest, was making patterns from the natural world. Momma had called it “breathing conja,” because it was something passive needing no attention to maintain. Each little making was weak on its own, but when layered together they could make for powerful spells.

Rugg took caution here. He told Tugboat to wait, then proceeded slowlike, holding his bleedydoll out in one hand and his boneknife in the other. The bleedydoll didn’t bleed, even as he felt the tremble in the boneknife (not to mention his own living bones) as told of conja. But not sour conja. This conja was sweet.

Maybe these makings were put up before the witch went sour. All the same, he’d have to get through the weave. Conja was like water—go through it slow and it was soft as anything. Fall into it fastlike and you’d break your bones. It took hours to work his way through the makings, unraveling the bone cages, unstacking the stones, crossing out the etches with his boneknife.

By and by he worked his way until he found the shack. Just as Pong had said—a shack with a roof made of turtle shell tiles. It was a small thing, cozy, a happy-looking home not at all like the grimy huts folk assumed when they imagined conjawitches’ dwellings. Pale smoke rose lazily from a narrow bark chimney.

Janglecords were strung between the trees, heavy with glass beads and old copper spoons and animal bones. Took Rugg his time to step over, around, and under these. Better slow than loud when sneaking up on a witch. Closer and closer he got, until he was outside the little window, just a square cut into the shack’s planed boards, no glass or cloth. He looked through it. Dried herbs and braids of root vegetables and wreaths of moss hung from a long beam, along with salted rabbits and rats and wax roots left to cure. Flasks and jars full of powders and goops clustered a shelf...

All the other details fell away when he noticed—on the edge of what he could see—a foot sticking out. A human foot. A body, draped under a thick blanket, lay on a long table. Only the foot, withered and yellowgray, except the veins which were a bright blue.

He backed away. Something was off about this. The bleedydoll had yet to show any red. There was no sour conja here. Not even a whiff. So either Pong was mistaken about this being the witch’s place, or Rugg was dealing with a witch powerful enough to hide the sourness.

From the other side of the shack, a door rasped open. Soft feet moved, crunching grass and squelching through mud. Rugg stowed his bleedydoll and drew his boomflute. He carefully drew back the hammer and started creeping around the edge.

The feet shuffled back into the shack and the door rasped shut.


The voice coming from inside the shack was strained, shrill, familiar. It was Win’s voice. But what was he doing here?

Some kind of stupid instinct took over. Rugg raced back to the window and vaulted himself into the shack. “Win?” he called.

The shack was empty. What was this? Cautiously, he moved toward the table where the body lay under its drape. He was about to prod one of the withered limbs with the muzzle of his boomflute when he heard—too late—a rustle on the floor behind him.

By the time he’d swung his boomflute over, a cloud of red dust was already blowing into his face.

When he woke up, the light coming through the shack’s window was the blue of day’s end.

He was on a table. Hard boards under his bones. His flesh was soft, like he’d been lying on the boards long enough to start bruising.

Sound of water bubbling. Good smell in the air. Meat and vegetables boiling, but something else, the mellow sweetness of duskflower oil. And a sour current under that—the scent of aged death. He was looking up at the beams of the rafters and the undersides of the turtleshells. He couldn’t move. His fingers were like wood, his legs heavier than stone. He couldn’t speak, could only breathe harder.

He’d been captured. Put under a spell. Made a plaything.

Where was Win? Where was Tugboat? If Tugboat hadn’t come to rescue him, that only meant one thing...

He tried to lift his hands, his feet, his head, anything. All he could manage was to turn his head, and then all he saw was the dry withered face of a dead woman dusted with corpsepowder to keep the flies off her and the smell locked down.

She’d been old and pale before she died. The tattoos around her lips and eyes were those of a witch.

“You’re awake.”

It was Win’s voice. Soft bare feet padded past him, cloth rippled, and the scent of duskflower drifted over him.

By and by, Rugg could feel the stiffness fade. He was far from strong, but now at least he could move his head some and flex his fingers and toes. With all the strength he had he lifted his head and was rewarded with the sight of Win’s backside—bare except for the loincloth and the tie of the apron he was wearing. The witchboy—that’s what he was, all this time, Rugg, you fool—was stirring a pot with a long paddle.

“Where’s—?” Rugg reached for his words, but the words only got so far down.

“Your gator’s fine,” Win said, voice strained but steady. “Fed him a chicken this morning. He’s tied to momma’s favorite tree. She liked gators.”

“H—how—how long?”

“This’ll be the third day. Started thinking you’d sleep forever.”

He remembered the red cloud. Dreamroot dust. Had to be. Win had been clever. Played him like a strumboard.

“Would’ve been better for me, maybe, if you had. Now what am I to do with you? Can’t let you go. I know the villfolk sent you. They think I’m the one as jinxed their chickens and made their runts ill.”

Rugg stayed calm. Not like panicking would help any. “You could have killed me, but you didn’t.”

“Like I need the reminder. I say it again: what am I to do with you, Mister Rugg?”

“Let me go.”

“So you can kill me? That’s what you come here to do, ain’t it?”


“I’m to trust you?”

“I don’t kill sweet conjawitches. Only the sour kind.”

And this boy wasn’t sour. This close, Rugg didn’t need a bleedydoll to tell. And anyway, a conjaman gone sour wouldn’t have let him sleep. He’d never have woken up.

Win was holding Rugg’s satchel now, full of all his tools. He pulled the dragrope out first and threw it into the fire burning under his cooking pot. The rope was stubborn, smoking before it took to the flame.

Then he held out Rugg’s collection. Ten shriveled human tongues impaled on a copper skewer—one for each sour conja he’d killed.

“Win, listen me,” Rugg said, talking soft. “I know you’re not the one spelled the folks in Ganvill.”

“You think I won’t kill you but you’re wrong. Meat’s meat. I can cut your throat like I’d cut a chicken’s throat.”

“Your conja’s sweet. If yours is what it is. Hard to tell what’s yours and what was woven by the old gal on the table here. But it’s all sweet.”

“You’re trying to save yourself.”

“I’m trying to talk you out of something stupid. I ain’t gonna hurt you, Win. Maybe you can help me find the one as spelled Ganvill.”

Win’s arm quivered as he held the braid of tongues, like it was something poisoned. His eyes, still rimmed with charcoal (smudged from fresh crying) wobbled with questions. Then they went hard with determination. He turned away.

“That old gal there is my momma. She worked all her life helping folks. But that didn’t matter. World’s full of stupid, scared people want to smash and burn whatever they don’t know.”

“I know that better than most.”

“Shut up. All my life, since I can remember, folks came here whenever something went wrong, hearts full of blame and nasty venom on their tongues. Momma never let it break her. Always offered help. Then she died. Now she ain’t here. Now they’re coming for me. Now they send a killer like you, and I’m to let you go?”

“If you don’t believe me, let me tell you a story.”

“I don’t wanna hear it.”

“Yes you do, Win. Ever heard of the Fingerthief?”

“Everyone’s heard of the Fingerthief. She was the evilest, worsest witch in Perish. But that’s got nothing to do with me or mine. And anyway, everyone knows she died a long time ago, before you or me got born.”

“She didn’t die. She had a child. Me.”

Win, who’d been avoiding looking at Rugg, now met his stare. “What?”

“Like you say, she was the worst you could meet. She was King Irwin’s painbringer—if he wanted someone hurt, he’d bring them to her. She was sour as they come. And yet. And yet, she didn’t stay that way. She had a child, by him. But that child was born sick, too sick for any healer to save. But she saved him—saved me. It changed her—saving life instead of taking it, fixing hurt instead of giving.

“I never came here to hurt you. I came here to find out the truth of who was spelling Ganvill. And I know it ain’t you.”

Win opened his mouth, face full of heat, but then stopped. Outside, a familiar sound:—the low rumble of Tugboat’s throat, a warning sound.

Then the tinkle of noisemakers on the janglecords. Dogs yipping.

Win dropped Rugg’s satchel with a gasp in his throat. The dogs were coming closer, yapping and yowling, and the men weren’t far behind, huffing and muttering to each other.

“How’re they so close? They shouldn’t—” His eyes snapped to Rugg, full of blame. “You broke the weave.”

“Only made a little hole.”

A gap. Only wide enough someone would have to be dumb lucky to find it. Or to know what they were doing, and only spellbreakers and conjafolk knew that sort of thing.

“You led them here,” Win said. He ran to cover up his momma’s corpse. Then he looked around, head flicking thisaway and thataway; he wanted to bolt, but he was in two minds it seemed.

“Sounds like a lot of dogs. Lot of men, too,” Rugg said.

“They’ll tear me apart. Drag me into the swamp and drown me... cut my tongue out and smoke it over their cookfire. I won’t let them.”

“I can help you, Win.”

Win shook his head, still stuck in two minds whether to run or hide. As if either would work.

“Win, I can help you. But you gotta lift whatever spell’s on me. You listening?”

“I can’t trust you. I can’t—can’t trust anyone.” His breath was coming out hard and raggedy. He was so scrawny Rugg could just about see his heart thumping under the skin. He looked at Rugg now. Another set of janglecords tinkled, and dogs swarmed outside of the shack. Tugboat was lowing and grumbling, the dogs yipping like mad.

“Hey. You got one choice as I see it,” Rugg said, finally raising his voice. “Take a chance on me, or wait for them to break your door in.”

Win bit his own fist and shook his head, letting out a long, shuddering sigh. “Fine. Fine. But swear first you’ll not turn on me.”

Rugg swore on Tugboat’s life he wouldn’t turn on Win. Win came to Rugg’s side and leaned down, his lips opening as they pressed to Rugg’s. He breathed out the dust as was still in Rugg’s lungs, and Rugg could move again.

It was dark. Stars swimming in the clouds. Rugg stepped out of the witch’s shack, his boomflute loaded in one hand, his longknife—the one made from sharp iron—in the other.

How many times had he seen this? A dozen men holding the leads of rearing hounds, carrying worm lamps and burning torches, all of their heads muddy with thoughts of murder and dragging witches through the swamp. Fear could do ugly things to folks.

They’d gotten almost to the shack, though not without some scrapes and a thick coating of mud up to their chests, but now at the sight of Rugg they stopped in their tracks.

“Hey-oh! The spellbreaker—he ain’t dead,” one of the men said.

A few of them cheered. Most looked surly or like they didn’t know what to think. From out of their throng, one man stepped forward, his smooth belly poking out from under his shiny copper chain. Pong.

“When you didn’t come back, we figured you’d failed,” he said. “So I gathered up some boys to come look after you.”

Rugg could feel his strength returning but slowly. He could walk and hold his weapons, but not much more than that. He’d have to play this careful. “You ought not be here,” he said. “This ain’t a job for villfolk—ain’t some frog to gig or catfish to drag out a muckhole.”

“No it ain’t,” Pong agreed. “It’s a conjawitch. One as needs killing. Now, you took your time, but if you’ve got a tongue to show me, I’ll still gladly pay you.”

Rugg clenched his jaw. His arms were wobbling; he hoped it didn’t show. “Listen here. There may be sour conja in these swamps, but it ain’t here.”

“Oh, really?”

The men were muttering. Even they as’d been happy to see him were looking wary now. Loop stepped forward, pointing his two-tined gig at Rugg. “There a witch in that shack, Mister?”

Rugg stood his ground. “Like I said, the sour conja ain’t here. Look elsewhere.”

“Witch must’ve spelled him,” Loop grumbled to the others. “Seems even spellbreakers ain’t above bad conja.”

The men were cheating forward, slackening their grasps on the dogs’ leads. Rugg could shoot down one man, but then the rest would be on him.

“If you ain’t gonna help, kindly step out of our way,” Headman Pong said.

Behind Rugg, the door opened with a rasp, and Win stepped out, clothed in his mother’s death blanket, holding the bone flute. The men cringed back. All except Pong.

Looking between Win and Pong, a thought occurred to Rugg, something as now seemed like a snake he’d not seen until he stepped on its head, but before he could follow the course of it, one of the dogs tore out of its man’s grasp and came bolting at Rugg and Win.

It didn’t make it halfway before ten men’s worth of meat and scaly hide came bolting over the muddy ground. Tugboat’s snapping jaws made the dog whimper and scamper away, and the men were doubting themselves again.

Except for Pong, still undaunted. He wasn’t holding anything—he had his hands behind his back. He glared at Win, not even looking at Tugboat. “Kill them,” he said, to no one in particular.

And all at once, men and dogs rushed forward in a wild charge. The first of the dogs got knocked aside by a swipe of Tugboat’s tail, and then the men, who seemed of a moment caught up in something bigger than them—stopped dead when the gator surged forward, throwing his bulk into the thick of them. They scattered, as did their dogs. But Tugboat wasn’t done—he thundered forward, making right for Pong.

Halfway to him, Tugboat stopped. Not natural-like. More like there was a rope strung through his limbs and it had cinched taut.

A low, pained rumble came from Tugboat’s throat as he struggled against his own stiffened limbs.

It all fell in place, and Rugg knew. “It’s him!” he shouted, pointing his boomflute at Pong. “There’s your sour conjaman.”

“He’s right,” Win said. “I can feel it. Like a mean wind coming off him.”

“Liars,” Pong said. “Don’t listen to them. Liars and witches, the both of them!”

The men from Ganvill stood in crosstracks, uncertain, scared. They needed convincing—they needed showing.

Rugg prayed he wasn’t wrong about this. He took aim and threw his knife at Headman Pong’s heart. The knife zipped, quick as death, tumbling end over end. And then stopped, mid-air, as Pong held one hand up. A flinch. Even now his face was full of fury: angry at Rugg for exposing him, angry at himself for giving up the game.

“You...” Loop stalked toward the Headman, the gig shaking in his hands. “You made my children sick.”

The knife was still floating in the air. Pong eyed Loop and the others, shook his head, and with a rueful sigh, flicked his hand. The knife zipped through the air, and if Loop hadn’t been quick, it’d have taken off more than a piece of one of his ears.

The others made a mad scramble for Pong, but he planted his feet, and from out the ground wicked roots sprung up, slashing and batting at the men, keeping them at bay. From out the sky, buzzing hornets came down, stinging the men and their dogs. Rugg couldn’t do much where he was, not trusting his aim with his weak arm when there were so many innocent men in the path of his boomflute.

“This is your fault, spellbreaker!” Pong shouted. “If you’d just done your job—”

The drone of the hornets got louder as more and more of the nasty beasties flew in, some of them now swarming on poor Tugboat and pressing in toward Rugg.

A sweet sound silenced their evil wings. The sweet, sad, lonely song of a bone flute. Win strode past Rugg, with the cloud of hornets dispersing in his path. The wicked roots fell slack, and Tugboat pulled free of that unseen rope. Pong looked at Win with so much hate—the hate as could only grow from shared blood. But in the next breath, even as Win played his soothing song, the men of Ganvill fell upon their headman. Loop pinned him with the gig while another cinched a dragrope tight around Pong’s throat.

They’d have killed him if it weren’t for Win.

“Stop!” he cried, putting his flute down. “Don’t fall in the mud with him.”

“He spelled our vill, sickened my children!” Loop shouted, pressing the hard points of his gig into Pong’s soft belly while the other man pulled hard on the rope. Pong eyes bulged, his face purpled.

“I said stop! Don’t kill him!” Win said. He looked to Rugg. “Help me.”

“He’s evil,” Loop said. Blood leaked freely down his jaw from the cut ear.

“Maybe,” Win admitted. “But I think he’s my brother.”

“Ease off,” Rugg commanded, and if the men hesitated, they soon got the message when Tugboat growled and dragged himself forward.

The men stepped away from Pong, but even unrestrained, he was still choking from the dragrope that his fingers couldn’t loosen. Slowly, cautiously, Win came to kneel beside him and slackened the coil some, not so much Pong could call on his conja but enough he could breathe. And speak.

“Momma never said I had a brother,” Win said. “That’s what you are, ain’t it?”

“She chased me out when you were still crawling,” Pong said, voice raspy, still full of venom. “This land you’re sitting on—all this power. It’s mine by right. I’m the firstborn. I should have it. Not you, not anyone else.”

“Why’d she chase you off?”

“Ain’t it obvious?” Rugg said, coming to stand over Pong. He eased down the hammer of his boomflute and sheathed it behind his back. “He went sour young. Or started going that way. Your momma probably found it easier to throw him out than teach him better.”

“That doesn’t seem like her...” Win said. But he sounded less than sure.

“You waited until she was dead to make your move,” Rugg said to Pong. “And you couldn’t kill him yourself—blood against blood would have deadened the land’s power. So you tried to stir up the villfolk against him, by spelling them.”

“They were all too soft,” Pong said, shaking his head. “I didn’t wanna hurt them. But they needed a push...”

“And when that didn’t work, along came a spellbreaker, to fix your trouble for you.”

“Except the spellbreaker wasn’t the thoughtless killer you took him for,” Win said.

“All this is just mud,” Loop grumbled. “This lying witch hurt us, hurt our people and our animals. Justice gotta be done.”

“I didn’t wanna hurt folks,” Pong said. “It wasn’t supposed to be that. I was just gonna scare the vill, pox some pigs, kill some chickens. But...”

“But it got easier,” Rugg supplied, feeling something like pity grow in him, hearing a story he’d heard before. “Each time you called on the sourness, it got easier, more satisfying.”

The glare in Pong’s eyes confirmed it.

“It’s a sickness, sour conja,” Rugg said.

“Sick or not, he needs punishing,” Loop said. He was calmer now, looking more like the exhausted man Rugg had met the other day.

“What would you do?” Win asked. “Kill him?”

“Why not?”

Rugg stepped between them. “Let him fix his mistakes. Let him lift the spells he made on your vill, heal the sick, mend the hurt.”

Loop gritted his teeth. “What about justice?”

“Justice ain’t death,” Win said, bravely standing down Loop, “nor is paying pain for pain. It’s paying kindness for pain. Doing good.”

Loop looked at Rugg. “What do you think?”

“I think love can make amends better than a noose or a cage.” He had to believe that. Otherwise, what was this world?

“You’re a fool,” Pong spat. “You oughta kill me, brother.”

Win knelt by him again. Pong was showing his teeth, snarling like he might bite his brother’s throat. But when Win put his arms around him, Pong just broke. His jaw clenched and the tears started to spill.

“Has he killed anyone?” Win asked the men.

They spoke of dogs and chickens. Of sick children. But admitted Pong had taken no human lives.

“Then there’s hope for him,” Win said. He laid a hand on Rugg’s shoulder, the long fingers clammy and all atremble with the fear Win’s face wouldn’t show. “If conja can go sour, it can go sweet again, can’t it?”

Rugg thought of momma.

“Rrrr,” said Tugboat.

“That’s the world’s truth there,” Rugg agreed.

As it turned out, Pong had lied about how much yellowrock and guano he had, but then his plan had always been to get rid of Rugg. The villfolk paid Rugg what they could scrounge, which was a little more than nothing. But he was used to this; little vills had little pockets.

Rugg and Tugboat stayed another week in the swamp, to make sure everyone would abide by their word. At first, Pong was sullen in his work, and sloppy. But Win was a patient teacher, and as the brothers began to unravel the sourness Pong had shaped, it seemed he healed some along with the vill. All the time not spent cleansing the air and water of Ganvill, Pong spent beside his dead mother, silently guarding her long sleep. It was a tender, halfshaped thing, Win and Pong’s kinship. Even if the vill wanted his death, even if his own heart condemned him, at least one soul believed Pong could grow into something good.

On the seventh night, Rugg helped Win and Pong send their mother to her last rest in the swampwater. Pong finally broke and wept, and Win held him and said it was a happy thing that she was back in the swamp with her ancestors and the woman as’d birthed her.

The morning after, Rugg tried to sneak off. He’d spent too much time here, and always that crack in his heart was calling, telling him to get back on the way to the coast. When he managed to lift Win’s arm off him without rousing him, he thought he was free and gone.

“You could stay, you know,” Win said, as Rugg was making for the door.

“I could,” Rugg admitted, risking the pain of one last look back.

Win looked at him with all the world’s pity. “Then why don’t you?”

Rugg thought about explaining, opened his mouth to say something, but realized he didn’t have the words even if he wanted to let them out. How to say that a flower might bloom bright then wither to something ugly? How to explain that his father had been a terrible, hurtful man, and that all that ugliness was in his blood, that he didn’t trust himself not to become the same kind of awful? He would’ve rather hurt Win once by leaving than hurt him a hundred times by staying.

“Nothing on you,” Rugg finally said, looking away now, one hand on the door even as something held him in place.

Win closed his eyes, the charcoal wings smudging with tears.

Rugg chewed a word and swallowed it, then walked out. Tugboat waited in the muck of the stream, clouds of choking pollen all around him burning goldpretty in the dawn sun. Onward to the coast, and whatever waited where all water flowed to.  

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Jonathan Louis Duckworth is a completely normal, entirely human person with the right number of heads and everything, and he loves folktales and playing with language. He received his MFA from Florida International University. His speculative fiction work appears in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Pseudopod, Southwest Review, Tales to Terrify, Flash Fiction Online, and elsewhere. He is a PhD student at University of North Texas, an active HWA member, and the current interviews editor at American Literary Review.

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