He brushed at his shirt, and discovered that his iron belt buckle was uncomfortably hot, as was his sheathed knife. And now that he had noticed those, he was aware too of a warmth on the insteps of his feet - right where his boot buckles were.
"Uh," he began, turning to Davies, but before he could think of what to say, Hurwood called from the boat ahead.
"Iron!" the old man told them. "Apparently the old superstitions - the connection between iron and magic - it'd probably be wise to discard it, as much of it as you can - "
"Keep your weapons," came Blackbeard's bass growl. "I was here before - it doesn't get too hot to bear. And don't ditch your belt buckles if that means your pants are going to fall down."
A scream from the black jungle made Shandy jump, but Davies, leaning on his own oar, laughed quietly and said, "Not a ghost - that was one of those brown-and-white birds that eat the water snails."
"Oh - right."
Shandy pulled in his oar and laid it across the bow. As gingerly as if he were splitting the shell off of a too-hot lobster, he unbuckled his belt, then drew his knife - he could feel the heat of the tang even through the leather wrapping of the grip - and, using the gunwale as a chopping block, sawed off the buckle-end of his belt. It clattered down the hull and splashed into the puddle sloshing back and forth on the floorboards. He slid the hot knife back into its sheath and picked up his oar again.
Davies, who hadn't paused in his own rhythmic poling, grinned mockingly and shook his head. "Your pants better not fall down."
Shandy leaned his full weight against his oar, and wondered if the water was too shallow to float the keel clear and they were poling the boat through mud. "Yours," he gasped, "better not catch fire."
The three boats inched onward through the humid jungle, hazed in the smoke from the torches. As much to relieve his watering eyes from the flame-glare as to watch for some stealthily approaching monster, Shandy kept peering off to the sides; and at first he was relieved to see that the "whispering" was issuing from flappy holes in the round pods of a white fungoid growth that was clustered more and more thickly along the spongy banks - casting about for an explanation of the phenomenon, he guessed that their roots were connected to caverns, and that temperature differences caused air to rush up and be released in this admittedly bizarre way - but as the boats were pushed farther into the marsh, where the fungus balls grew bigger, he saw that above the loose-edged, exhaling holes were bumps and indentations that looked increasingly like noses and eyes.
The sense of a huge and attentive - but silent - entity out in the darkness became more and more oppressive. Finally Shandy looked up in fear, and though he could see the moonlight-silvered interweaving of branches overhead, he knew that a thing was bending down invisibly above them, a thing that belonged here, that owned - perhaps largely consisted of - these repellently fecund swamps and pools and vines and small amphibian lives.
The others obviously felt it too. Friend scrambled heavily to his feet and then nearly extinguished his boat's torch by dumping a double fistful of the black herb onto it; the flame guttered low, but a couple of seconds later flared up again, sending a billowing cloud of the harsh smoke unfolding upward toward the branches that roofed the river.
A scream out of the sky shook blossoms from the trees and raised ripples in the water so tight and steady that for a moment the boats seemed to be sitting on a pane of extra-ridgy bull's-eye glass. The sound rang away through the jungle, and then there was just the cawing of frightened birds, and, after they subsided, just the whispering of the fungus pods.
Shandy glanced at the nearest cluster of the pods, and he saw that the fungus lumps were definitely faces now, and from the way their eyelids twitched he was unhappily sure that soon he'd be meeting the gaze of eyes when he looked at them.
Behind him Davies was swearing steadily in a weary monotone.
"Don't tell me," Shandy said in a fairly even voice, "that was one of those brown-and-white birds that eat the goddamned water snails."
Davies barked one syllable of a laugh, but didn't reply. Shandy could hear Beth weeping quietly.
"Ah, my dear Margaret," said old Benjamin Hurwood in a choked but throbbing voice, "may these tears of joy be the only sort you ever shed again! And now indulge, please, a sentimental old Oxford don. On this, our wedding day, I'd like to recite to you a sonnet I've composed." He cleared his throat.
The invisible swamp-presence was still a psychic weight on the foul air, and the insteps of Shandy's feet were getting uncomfortably hot in spite of the thick leather between the boot buckles and his skin.
"Margaret!" Benjamin Hurwood began, "I require a Dante's muse ... "
"We're aground," came Blackbeard's call from ahead. "Stop pushing 'em. From here, we move on foot."
Christ, thought Shandy. "Is he ... kidding?" he asked, not very hopefully.
Instead of answering, Davies laid his oar in the boat and climbed over the stern and lowered himself into the black water. It proved to be about hip deep.
" ... Fitly to sing my joy after that day," Hurwood crooned on.
Shandy looked ahead. Blackbeard had taken his boat's torch out of its bracket, and he and his disquieting boatman were both already in the water and wading toward the nearest bank. Shadows shifted as they moved, and new clusters of the fungus heads became visible.
"Mr. Hurwood," Leo Friend was hissing, shaking the one-armed man. "Mr. Hurwood! Wake up, damn you!"
"When," Hurwood continued reciting, "in my life's mid-point, God let me choose ... to leave the gloomy wood - "
Shandy could see Beth's shoulders shaking. Bonnett was sitting as stiffly motionless as a mannikin.
Blackbeard and his boatman had climbed up onto the bank, and, ignoring the twitching, whispering white globes at their feet, were hanging on to dangling wild grapevines to keep their footing on the mud and the arching wet roots. "We need him alert," called Blackbeard to Friend. "Slap him - hard. If that doesn't do it I'll come over there and ... do something to him myself."
Friend smiled nervously, drew back a pudgy hand and then cracked it across Hurwood's simpering face.
Hurwood let go a yell that was almost a sob, then blinked around at the boats, once again aware of his real surroundings.
"Not much farther now," Blackbeard told him patiently, "but we leave the boats here."
Hurwood peered for almost a minute at the water and the mud bank. Finally, he said, "We'll have to carry the girl."
"I'll help carry her," called Shandy.
Friend gave Shandy a venomous glare, but Hurwood didn't even look around. "No," the old man said, "Friend and Bonnett and I can manage."
"Right," said Blackbeard. "The rest of us will be busy chopping us a passage through this jungle."
Shandy sighed and put down his oar. He rocked the boat's torch free of its bracket, handed it and the packet of black herb to Davies, and then climbed out of the boat. At least his boots leaked, and the relatively cool swamp water soothed his hot feet.
For half an hour the odd company splashed, plodded and stumbled through one claustrophobic tangle of vegetation after another; Shandy's knife-wielding arm was shaking with fatigue from chopping vines and tree branches, but he drove doggedly on, climbing up out of pools he blundered into, and forcing himself to breathe the harsh air, and always being terribly careful not to let the torch he carried in his other hand be extinguished, or burn off all its charge of the black herb.
Hurwood, Bonnett and Friend lurched along behind, stopping every few yards to arrange a new way to carry their own torch, Hurwood's boxes, and Beth, and twice Shandy heard a calamitous multiple splash, followed by renewed sobbing from Beth and a burst of almost incomprehensibly shrill cursing from her father.
Shortly after the eight of them had set foot on the first mud bank, the fungus heads had begun sneezing, and a grainy powder like spores or pollen puffed out of the flappy mouths; but the thick, low-hanging torch smoke repelled the dust as if each torch were the source of a powerful wind that only the powder could feel.
"Inhaling that dust," panted Hurwood at one point when several of the things sneezed at once, "is what ... gave you ghosts, Thatch."
Blackbeard laughed as he chopped a young tree aside with a swipe of his cutlass. "Clouds of ghost eggs, eh?"
Shandy, glancing back for a moment, saw Hurwood's pout of scholarly dissatisfaction. "Well, roughly," the old man said as he hunched to get his daughter's legs more comfortably arranged on his shoulders.
Shandy turned back to his task. He'd been trying all along to stay away from Blackbeard's boatman, who, blank-faced, was swinging his cutlass so metronomically that he reminded Shandy of one of the water-powered figures in the Tivoli Gardens in Italy, and as a result Shandy found himself working, more often than not, between Davies and Blackbeard.
The sense of a vast, invisible presence was intensifying again, and again Shandy could feel the thing bending down out of the sky over them, glaring with alien outrage at these eight intruders.
Sticking his knife into a tree for a moment, Shandy opened the oilskin bag and dumped a handful of the black stuff onto the torch. After a moment a thick eruption of smoke billowed up and nearly blinded him as he recovered his knife; but this time when the smoke cloud disappeared into the tangled jungle canopy, the forest shook with a low roaring - a boot-shaking rumble that clearly expressed anger, and, just as clearly, emanated from no organic throat.
Blackbeard stepped back, squinting around suspiciously at the greenery that walled them in. "My first time here," he muttered to Davies and Shandy, "I talked to the natives - Creek Indians, mostly. Traded 'em medicine magic for straight talk. They mentioned a thing called Este Fasta. Said that meant 'Give Person.' Sounded like some local breed of loa. I wonder if that's who our growler was just now."
"But he didn't mess with you on your first visit," said Davies tightly.
"No," Blackbeard agreed, "but that time I didn't have the ghost repellent. He probably figured he didn't need to interfere."
Great, thought Shandy. He glanced at the torchlit web of vegetation in front of them, and was the first by a second or two to notice that the vines and branches were moving - twisting - in the still, stagnant air.
Then Blackbeard noticed it, and even as the plants assumed we crude shape of a giant hand and clawed toward them, the Pirate-king dropped his torch and lunged forward and with two strokes of his cutlass, forehand and backhand, he smashed the thing to pieces.
"Come on, devil," Blackbeard raged, a fearsome sight with his teeth and the whites of his mad eyes glittering in the glow of the smoldering match-cords woven into his mane, "wave some more bushes in my face!" Not even waiting for the foreign loa's response, he waded straight into the primeval rain forest, shouting and whirling his cutlass. "Coo yah, you quashie pattu-owl!" he bellowed, reverting almost entirely to what Shandy could now recognize as Jamaican mountain tribe patois. "It take more than one deggeh bungo duppy to scare off a tallowah hunsi kanzo!"
Shandy could hardly see Blackbeard now, though he saw the vines jumping and heard the chopping of the cutlass and the clatter and splash of wrecked verdure flying in all directions. Crouched back and gripping his knife, Shandy had a moment to wonder if this maniacal raging was the only way Blackbeard allowed himself to vent fear - and then the giant pirate had burst back out of the jungle, some of his beard-trimming match-cords extinguished but his fury as awesome as before. Blackbeard snatched the oilskin bag from where it stuck out of Shandy's coat pocket, tore it open with his teeth and flung it into the mud.
"Here!" he yelled at the jungle, grabbing Shandy's torch now and slamming its flaming head straight down onto the spilled herb. "I brand you my slave!"
A steamy smoke cloud burst up, stinking of scorched black mud as well as of burning herb, and a scream of inhuman pain and wrath impacted the air from above, stripping leaves from the trees and punching Shandy right off his feet.
As he rolled in the watery muck, struggling to stand up and get air back into his lungs, Shandy dimly saw the silhouette that was Blackbeard tilt back its shaggy head and rid itself of a deafening, grating howl. It was a terrible sound, like the challenge-cry of some gargantuan reptile; Shandy felt more kinship with the wolves that, in his youth, he had occasionally heard crying from vast distances across northern ice-fields.
The trio carrying Beth had halted; Shandy was tensely crouched behind and to one side of Blackbeard, and Davies, expressionless but visibly pale in the light from Hurwood's torch, stood to the other side with his sword drawn and held ready-
A sudden wind blew away the echoes of Blackbeard's howl, and this time the whispering of the fungus heads was the only sound to be heard afterward - any birds in the area were silenced.
Abruptly Shandy realized that the fungus heads had opened their eyes and were talking, in actual languages; the one nearest him was complaining, in French, about how cruel it was that an old woman should be neglected by her children, and one near Davies was using a Scottish dialect to deliver the sort of advice a father would give to a son about to travel to a big city. Shandy stared at it wonderingly when he heard it warn against expressing any opinion on religion or the recent regicide. Regicide? thought Shandy; did someone kill King George during this last month ... or could this thing be talking about the murder of James the First a century ago?
Blackbeard slowly lowered his head, and glared at a berry-decked bay tree in front of him. A full-armed swing of his cutlass made an aromatic ruin of the tree, and beyond it, instead of more vegetation, was darkness and a cooler breeze and a dim glow, as of a brightly lit city just over the horizon.
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