See the introduction for more information.

This story © Keenan Cross, 2022

[sable fens, 3afm, 19yo]

Holding on to the rope in one hand, Dandec swam as far down as he could, to where the strange weeds grew.  The thick, sour taste of peat flooded his nostrils even while he held his breath.  He dug his free hand into the soil at the bottom of the lake shelf and brought up as many plants as he could, roots and all.  Those in hand, he returned to his boat up above.

It was raining in the Sable Fens, as it did nearly two days out of three.  The floor of Dandec’s small rowboat sloshed already with rainwater before he even pulled his soaking body in and closed the weeds in the sample case.  Thunder rolled from west to east above him as he rowed his way back down the canal to his hut.  His feet sank deep into the mossy turf when he stepped out.  Samples under one arm, he tied the boat to its post and slouched inside.

The weeds were not for study—Dandec had already documented them thoroughly—but for practical use.  He emptied them onto his table and brought a magnifying lens over them.  That revealed the cysts on its leaves, containing the eggs of water ants. Very carefully, so as not to break those open, Dandec clipped them away from the leaves and separated them into a pile.  He cut the roots away from the rest, and discarded the leaves.

The water-ant cysts would be the main ingredient for an ointment that seemed to be the only thing that soothed the inflamed gills of fenfolk afflicted by the fever raging across their home land this year.  It was Dandec’s own recipe, discovered in his studies and now in high demand.  The roots were for his tea.

He drank that while sitting at his window, looking out over the fens.  Islands of thick grass studded the landscape, hanging over numerous lakes and a river tributary that snaked among them.  The water danced with raindrops and charged with the wind.  Those islands were peat through and through.  The sickly-sweet smell of decaying plant matter was a miasma that invaded nostrils and clothes alike.  The rain tamped it down but released another musty mineral smell in its place.  Dandec liked both smells, and often left his house in the rain purely to breathe them in.

It rained so often that Dandec had had to become used to working in it in ways he would not have dreamed of in the GCP, from rowing between hamlets to measuring plant growth.  Dry shoulders were a rarity.

When his tea was finished, he tied the weed cysts into a pouch and tucked that in amidst the other ingredients in his physician’s case.  He wrapped that in a tight leather bag and donned his wide-brimmed rain hat.

The hamlet nearest him was no short journey by boat.  Dandec knew the waterways well by now.  He could navigate them even when his eyes insisted on staring into the underside of his hat.  He cast his tow hook to the post just outside the hamlet and pulled himself in to disembark.

Fen houses were low and built of dark wood, with pitched roofs covered in the same peat of the surrounding environment, grown thick with grass so that they looked almost like natural mounds.  Seven or eight made up most hamlets, often surrounding a central meeting house or prayer lodge.

Dandec descended the wooden steps down into the westernmost house.  The inside was damp and dark, lit only by a pitch lamp on the table.  Quoria was there as always, waiting at her sick husband’s side.  The others who lived in this house were out, working or praying.

Everywhere in the world, Dandec had been told, everyone believed that the fenfolk were demihumans.  Perhaps the descendants of a pair who, anomalously, were not sterile like all others.  The place was victim to legendarizing, spoken of as the sole nation for demihumans, alternately a paradise of charitable equity or a barbaric waste controlled by mongrels.  Every demihuman was given the advice, at one time or another, to claim to be fenfolk, and therefore earn better treatment from fullkind.  No one beyond the fens themselves could disprove it.

As he had approached the Sable Fens, though, it had become clear that none of that was what Dandec would find.  It was rare for fenfolk to leave their home, but not unheard of, and most people knew the truth who lived near it.  They were no demihumans; merely a species unto themselves, whose survival was too closely tied to their environment to venture too far from it.  So they were not secretive, they were not degenerate, and they were not brutish.  They were simply of the fens.

Quoria welcomed Dandec with clasped hands and gave him her seat by Penancho’s bedside.  The latter was still feverish, his blue-green hide developing white spots and his eyes puffy behind inflamed lids.  Dandec reached into the water and heaved him over onto his frontside to expose the gills on his back, which were also swollen and irritated. 

Quoria dove into the pool that connected the house to the river, to tend to the livestock and leave Dandec alone while he worked.  Her lithe and broad-shouldered form disappeared into the water with hardly a splash, trailing fronds that would have shimmered in better light.  Dandec had not heard her speak in all the time he had been here.  He was told she had not spoken a word in three years, since the death of the World Heart.  And she was not the only one, not even in this hamlet.

Dandec mixed a pinch of weed-cysts with a few other herbs and salts and ground them into a paste with a mortar and pestle.  The resulting ointment, as fresh as it could be, he dabbed with a rag so that he could apply it to the fen’s inflamed gills.  He had to work it into the tissues, a process that made him feel ill before he discovered that he could use a rag or sponge rather than his fingers.

Penancho’s breathing became a little less labored, as the ointment had time to work.  Dandec turned him again to lay on his back within the bed tub, fully submerged so that the water could flow into his nostrils and across to the slightly less swollen gills on his back.  The fen still shuddered in his sleep, but his suffering was clearly much eased.

The worst of the white sores on his trunk, Dandec covered with another poultice and bound with compresses of linen.  Those he had not found an effective treatment for, especially in a case as bad as this.

He washed his hands and his instruments in the diving pool, and climbed back out of the house.  There was another sick in this hamlet, one who was not so stricken with the sores, but had also developed the infection that sometimes accompanied this fever, in the fronds that hung from fenfolk’s bodies and webbed their hands and feet.  When he was finished tending to that one as best he could, he would then need to row to the next hamlet, and the next.  Two days later, he would need to row this circuit again.


The negotiations between Renoref the fishmonger and Tarayay the rivershepherd brought Dandec to the meetinghouse in the southeast hamlet.  The demihuman arrived in the early, gray morning, laden with the journals in which he tracked the stocks of every local trader and craftsfen, and blank ones he used to mediate their deals.  The two fenfolk were already in the meetinghouse before he arrived, awaiting their mediator with hands folded and head down.

Renoref began.  He was tall, his lappets and whiskers decorated with rings and piercings, and his chest scarified with a knotwork pattern.

“I can’t provide the agreed-upon amount,” he said.  “The stocks have not replenished as quickly as usual.”

In the days of the imperial Plains, its soldiers had invaded the Sable Fens repeatedly, hoping but unable to make use of its virtually limitless peat.  They had left behind their language, to Dandec’s relief.  The dialect was not even too different from that of the eastern Plains, though it was heavily accented.

“I have all of the wool,” Tarayay responded, long brow-feelers shaking as he spoke.  “I cannot split up the shipment.”

They faced each other, but they really spoke to Dandec.  The demihuman scribbled the sizes of the respective orders in his journal and compared them to previous transactions.

“Renoref also has crawdads,” he pointed out.  “Thirty percent of those are reserved for another order, but the rest may replace the fish.”

Tarayay considered this.  He had a tic of blinking his tired eyes repeatedly, drawing them deep in their sockets as fenfolk did when they slept.

“My riversheep will not eat crawdads,” he says.

“I cannot pay for all of the wool with only the fish I have!” Renoref lamented.

The negotiations went back and forth and took Dandec some time to mediate.  In the end, Tarayay agreed to hold back fifteen percent of his wool and take Renoref’s fish, plus crawdads to feed himself and his apprentices.  The original deal would have provided fish for all of the riversheep and the fenfolk who tended them, a much better diet.  Dandec noted that Tarayay was unhappy with this trade, but commercially satisfied.

Though they were sour with each other, Renoref and Tarayay came to Dandec and supplicated themselves before him.  They caressed his hands as though they were holy, a sign of the deepest gratitude among the fenfolk.  He acknowledged their thanks with a quiet nod.  Prior to his arrival, many journeyfen had been too frightened to trade, because negotiations too often descended into acrimony or even violence.  Dandec could not say what he provided that helped; he had only the little bit of inventory and trading knowledge he had learned in Do-yath’s caravan.  Somehow, though, he seemed to personally keep trade flowing.


The first clear night that both moons were visible and full, the hamlets all came together for the festival of the lakereaver.  Some forty fenfolk converged upon the prayer house in the northeast hamlet, half of them within it and half listening from without.

The ceremony began in darkness, until the lakespeaker lit the fire at the center of the prayer house’s single spartan room.  Like any fire in the Sable Fens it was burning peat, but in this moment that symbolized the conversion of the physical world, which was the Flesh of the Great Beast, into the metaphysical, which was its Breath.

“I speak as the Great Beast’s own mind,” the lakespeaker intoned, waving a hand over the smoky and pungent flames.  Their light caused shadows to dance in the recesses of his gaunt, haunted face.  “I invoke the burden of the parasite, who gives thanks to the reaver who carved the land so that it may flow with the Beast’s blood.”

He lapsed then into the old tongue, the one that was spoken in the Fens before the Plains incursion, that was now spoken only in prayer.  Dandec threw a handful of herbs into the fire, and held his hand over it until he could withstand the heat no longer, as was required of him.  The fenfolk joined their lakespeaker in a low and melodious chant in that old language, singing a prayer to which Dandec was not privy, though they begged him to participate in the ceremony.

Though he did not know its meaning, he was not immune to its effect.  The two dozen voices formed an overwhelming wave of sound that crept across his skull like the flow of a river, pierced his every tissue.  At the same time the heat, so unlike the neverending chill outside, brought him to the core of the earth and enveloped him.  When the herbs he had added to the fire took effect, he was the earth itself.

For a little while.

Once, the fenfolk would have pressed in tightly, perhaps all forty of them within the prayer house.  United by their sweat and their breath and their voices, they would have sung their thanks and emerged in orgiastic dance, running and stomping across the island, howling to the moons and moving to the rhythm of the beating of the Great Beast’s heart.  Awkward webbed feet tearing at the turf, fronds and sails waving, not one of them would be a separate fen from any other.

There was no festival anymore, despite the name.  When the chant subsided, Dandec was only naked and uncomfortably hot, and the high of the hallucinogenic herbs amounted to little more than seeing trails as he looked around to avoid hurting his eyes by staring at the fire.  The lakespeaker tried to conceal that he wept.

The old festival would have concluded with the lakespeaker stepping out of the prayer house, running to each fellow fen, laying hands on their cheeks and speaking a secret phrase in the old tongue.  Now that the ceremony saddened him so, the lakespeaker’s duty fell to Dandec, who sidestepped awkwardly among the dazed fenfolk, met their eyes and cupped each face in his hands, wordlessly.  It left him feeling as though he had been asked to press his body against each, but he did not dare say so.

Machinism had never taken hold in the Sable Fens.  Instead, its denizens held any number of local beliefs regarding the workings of the world, all of them centered around the World Heart.

Though it had now been three years since the World Heart died, there had been no recovery in the Sable Fens.  Nothing had been rebuilt.  Nothing at all.

The towns Dandec had visited were solemn places, where the fenfolk lived troglodytic lives in their isolated homes.  There were no physicians, there were no priests or traders, there were no leaders.  In some places there was little talk at all, let alone to an outsider.

Initially he thought it a dour place, like many he had seen. In time he had come to recognize their state, however, from the dormitories of the satellite university at Esor.  Following the Fall, he had not so much as opened the door to his room for many days.  Learning in time that the fenfolk were typically a gamesome and serene bunch, he had been convinced.

He came out of the prayer house and on to the hill at the center of the hamlet, to complete the ceremony among the watchers from outside.  Less affected by the herbal smoke, these struggled to avoid his strange eyes, and not to watch the ways he had to turn and twist his neck to aim them properly.  Nonetheless, this was the way, and Dandec had been asked to help keep the ways.

When it was finished, he sat to watch the sky.  The stars had auras and drifted sluggishly when his eyes rolled away from them.  Dandec breathed, and thought he could smell the halo that surrounded the dry moon.  It was only hallucinogen; he had been made to sample it in Esor to learn to identify and describe the leaves that were its source.  With that knowledge, he could not look to the fenfolk lingering around the prayer house, and feel that their shimmering auras were the dissolving bounds between himself and them, themselves and each other, each other and the land.

But it was still important.  The festival had gone unobserved for two years, and the fenfolk yearned for it, even in (or more likely due to) the absence of its ultimate subject.  When Dandec revealed his knowledge of the hallucinogenic herbs, the fenfolk begged him to take part, to help revive the rite.

Just as they had asked him to take the role of mediator, when it became known that he had traveled for years with a merchant caravan.  And when he had granted that his specialty in plants had given him some experience with their medicinal uses, and he had slipped unknowingly into the role of physician.

The fenfolk society repaired itself where Dandec went.  Slowly—take the lakespeaker’s weeping—but nonetheless.  As though it lay in fragments, and where he strode they slid back into place before him.  Though the people of the village were still shocked, silent, and dour, the fever was not so rampant as it had been before Dandec’s arrival, and work had resumed in the fields.

And Dandec had been at his wit’s end for most of his time here.

There were two stone-heavy blocks of ice that burned the inside of Dandec’s chest.  The one was his joy at seeing the slow but visible recovery the fenfolk were making, graciousness and wonder that it was his presence that facilitated it.  The other was an unremitting terror, the fear that, should he misstep  or say wrong word, the fenfolk’s lives would be crushed.  The fear that, should he vanish or be injured, his hosts would be immediately returned to the bottommost depths of their despair.

On the night of the festival, Dandec took his boat out and dove where the weeds grew.  He brought two handfuls up, but he did not return to the boat.  Instead he tossed the weeds in and dove again to pull more.  He dove twelve times, and stayed under the surface longer each dive.  In the dark, lit only by the moons whose light could not fully penetrate the bog, he imagined that tigerfish and caimans and other dangers swarmed.

When he tied his boat to its post, he had a mound of the weeds.  Far more than he could use before the cysts lost their potency.  He stared at them for a long while, at the speckles of light they caught in their wet pile, before he gathered them up to bring inside.

Under lamplight he cut away all of the cysts from the leaves.  They formed a pile the size of his fists side by side.  They glowed.  When he reached toward them, they shared an aura with his hand.

Some of this he would use; the rest would go bad in a day or two.  And he could not be sure he had left enough weeds underwater for the insects to lay more eggs in.  Dandec swept the remains, roots and all, into a bucket, and emptied it back into the water.

When he abandoned his hut, he left the mound of weed cysts on the desk, wrapped in paper to maybe preserve them a little longer.  He left his case of medical supplies beside it, and his negotiation books.  At dawn he rowed to the northeast, in the direction of the nearest dryland town.


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