The Iron Crown
Brackish and thick, the putrid sludge pulled Fenn deeper in, filling his nose with its awful stench. He flailed, weak, the strength sucked from his arms. Every movement made it worse and his head pounded in time with his pulse. His chest tightened in panic—both at his critical situation and the suddenness with which he found himself in it. Fenn had no recollection of falling into a bog, or even where he’d been before.
Where was he?
Gulping down lungfuls of air, he cast his gaze about, looking for anything he could use to get himself out of the swampy mud. Enormous trees surrounded the fetid pool on all sides, their vast canopy throwing the small clearing into shades of mottled green. Weak sunlight filtered through the broad leaves, bathing him in dappled shadow. A few vines trailed down the ancient trunks, thorns protruding from their green flesh. Some reached the edge of the pool, their ends disappearing into the brown-black mud—the closest thing he could reach.
He spun in place, squelching as he sunk further in. The mud was up to his waist, and he could hardly feel his legs.
What was this place?
How did he get here?
He hadn’t been in a forest, had he? He couldn’t remember, couldn’t think.
Questions for later—if he didn’t get himself out right now, there wouldn’t be a later.
Reaching forward, Fenn stretched his arms out, fingertips just grazing the nearest of the vines where they settled on the pool’s edge. Sweat rolled down his arms and dampened his clammy hands. He managed to grab one vine between his first two fingers, but it slipped out of his grasp.
Fenn groaned with the effort. Bubbles on the surface of the viscous liquid burst and cold mud slapped against his bare arms, coating them in thick, brown ooze. The foul stench made him gag, and he bit down on his instinct to cover his face with his arm—that was only going to make the smell worse. He screwed up his nose, as if that would somehow lessen the intensity of the odour.
He sank deeper, the cold now creeping up his lower back.
‘Help!’ His voice cracked, as if it hadn’t been used for some time. Clearing his throat, Fenn called out again, ‘Can anyone hear me? Can someone help?’ He didn’t like how thin and reedy his voice sounded, small against the dark, foreboding forest. A few birds took flight, their fluttering sending feathers down between the green, leaving an eerie stillness to the humid glade.
With difficulty, he swallowed and reached for the vine again, this time catching his thumb along one of the long thorns and tearing his flesh open. Withdrawing it with a yelp of pain, he shoved his thumb into his mouth, then immediately spat out bloodied mud and retched. Idiot!
Using his shoulder to wipe away the sweat dripping down his temple, he tried to throw himself towards the edge. Cold, wet sludge kept him from taking more than a step and pulled him down more. He squeezed his eyes shut, desperate to hide from the headache that throbbed incessantly at his forehead, and hoped to wake from whatever nightmare his mind had decided to inflict upon him. ‘Hello? Please!’ Fenn called again, volume rising with panic.
There had to be someone nearby. Forests were usually full of people gathering wood, setting traps, picking herbs and flowers.
Nothing moved, save the few leaves that dropped to the ground in the birds’ wake.
Stomach sinking, he realised there was no-one there. No-one coming to help. He had to get out of this himself, otherwise he’d die. Drowning in muddy sludge had never before crossed his mind as a way his life could end, and he had no intention of letting the possibility become a reality.
There was nothing for it. Grimacing in anticipation of the coming pain, Fenn threw himself forward with all the strength he could muster and grabbed the closest vine with both hands. His muscles spasmed as he overexerted himself, and he ignored the twinge. Thorns dug into his palms, then his thumbs, as he tightened his grip. He winced as they pierced his skin—better a short, sharp pain now than a slow death later.
Slowly, due to the thick sludge and his own dwindling stamina, Fenn pulled himself along the vine, inching towards the edge of the pool. Every movement pushed the thorns in further, deepening the cuts across his skin. Moving through the mud sapped his strength, but he soldiered through it. One thorn snapped off under his finger, flicking mud at him as it fell. Fenn turned his chin at the last second, the gloop spattering along his right cheek, narrowly avoiding his eye.
One arm over the other, he pulled himself towards safety. He was halfway there, now. Slow and steady.
Another two thorns snapped away, and a deep growl reverberated across the surface of the mud.
‘You’re pulling my thorns out!’
Fenn stilled at the sudden, ferocious voice. Fat chunks of mud dropped from his arm and slapped back into the pool, but he ignored the stench rising from it. His heart thundered in his chest, eyes wide as he gazed around for whoever had shouted at him.
When the voice didn’t speak again, and quite certain he was becoming delirious in the fumes emitted from the muddy swamp, Fenn continued to heave himself along the vine, redoubling his attempts to free himself. A fourth thorn snapped away with a crack.
Just as the edge was within grasping distance, another of the trailing vines rose from the ground and thwacked him across the chest.
Fenn coughed violently, stunned.
Had…had the vine deliberately attacked him? It couldn’t have.
‘Get. Off!’ The vine in his hands shuddered, recoiling from him as if alive, dragging its thorns along his bare arms and leaving a trail of raw scratches.
‘I’m trying!’ Fenn couldn’t believe he was talking to a vine. Arguing with one.
He must be more delirious than he’d realised.
Fenn tightened his hold on the tip of the vine and hurled himself through the last few feet of mud. He pulled harder to speed his approach, and the vine snapped just before he reached safety. Flailing forward, fingers scrabbling against the wet grass that lined the edge of the pool, Fenn heaved himself out of the mud as it tried to suck him back in.
He managed to stay on his hands and knees for a few seconds before collapsing onto the dew-covered grass, panting heavily. Glancing back down at himself, he realised he’d lost a shoe somewhere in the fetid pool. There was no going back for it now. His lower half was completely caked in the stinking, oozing mud, and all his clothes were ruined, anyway. It hardly mattered that he was missing a shoe, too.
Besides, that was the least of his worries.
The vine had spoken to him, hadn’t it? Or had that been part of a headache-induced hallucination? The pain hadn’t left him. And the vine wasn’t speaking now. There were distant sounds in the trees: birds and squirrels chittering, the drip of water somewhere, the rustle of leaves in the breeze.
Nothing here was familiar. And nothing made any sense. He had no idea where he was, how he’d got there, or—more worryingly, now he had time to consider it—no recollection of who he was. Where had he been? Who…who was he?
His name floated up from the darkness of his mind. But other than that? There was…nothing. The more he tried to think, the less he knew. Memories slipped through his grasp like water through his fingers. His mind was a tangle of confusion, as though a dense fog had taken up residence and settled down over everything that made sense.
Several lines of crimson criss-crossed his flushed arms and hands, the stinging intensifying now he was still, especially where the stinking mud touched it. He raised his left arm to his face, wondering if there was poison in the thorns. Perhaps that was causing the hallucinations? The memory issues?
Something moved just outside his peripheral vision. A shadow, shifting along the leaf litter covering the forest floor. Fenn turned, breath held in case it was one of the numerous predators that made the trees their home. After saving himself from drowning, it would be just his luck to be devoured by a bear.
A hiss rippled through the undergrowth.
Perhaps it wasn’t a bear. They didn’t hiss.
‘Who…who’s there?’ He staggered to his feet, wet mud dripping from his body, trying to get a better look between the trees. His one bare foot squelched with each step, and he suppressed a shudder. He hadn’t fully recovered from the talking vine—if it really had been talking—and wasn’t sure he could face a new threat quite so soon.
A sudden cold wind snaked through the trees, turning the damp air into freezing mist. The grass wilted away, shrinking down to the ground. Even the trees seemed to sag. Fenn shivered at the drop in temperature and the growing tension that came with it. The hiss sounded again—no more than a few feet away.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as the mist crept across the mud pool, frosting the top layer. Fenn saw his breath in the air on his next exhale, and gritted his teeth, expecting to be snatched away and eaten by some frost monster.
‘My, my, my…where have you come from?’
It wasn’t the vine talking. Not this time. The disembodied voice came from the mist itself—across the pool within the shadows, just hidden out of view. Not trusting himself to speak, Fenn kept his mouth shut and eyes wide open, ready to react.
The hiss shifted into a low growl, and the mist coalesced on top of the frozen mud pool. It churned like water over a fall, until solid shapes formed. A sinuous, reptilian body. Scales. Claws. Wings. A tail. Two golden eyes with vertical slit pupils that stared directly at him.
Fenn’s breath caught. Even if he’d wanted to talk, he couldn’t. His voice had left him.
The dragon’s nostrils flared, sending up a plume of smoke that joined the mist wreathing the trees. Its skin was mottled green, like the forest around it, with darker stippling along its back and legs. Its wings were thin and membranous, the pattern on its skin identical to the tree’s leaves. Four large horns protruded from the back of its head, and long, green vines dangled between them. Although easily as large as the bear Fenn feared it had been, it wasn’t as bulky, and it shimmered in the pale sunlight—becoming translucent every few seconds.
Waiting for a response, the dragon flexed its wings.
Memory loss was one thing. A talking plant was another. Now a dragon had appeared out of the mist, Fenn was sure he wasn’t entirely in his right mind. He blinked rapidly, hoping to clear the visual and auditory hallucinations he was most definitely experiencing. But the dragon remained. If anything, it looked mildly irritated at being ignored. Another plume of smoke rose from its nostrils and one long, sharp fang protruded from its upper jaw.
‘What…are you?’ It was a stupid question, but the only one Fenn could come up with. He took a few steps away from the now icy mud pool and the dragon standing atop it.
Lowering its head to the torn vine, the dragon breathed gently over it, and a cloud of thick, green smoke drifted out from its jaws. At the smoke’s touch, the vine’s tendrils lifted, wrapped around one another, and knitted themselves back together, as if Fenn had never ripped it. Even the lost thorns regrew, pushing through the vine’s flesh like new teeth.
The dragon let out another growl, its muscles bunched up as it studied Fenn through bright, golden eyes. In a flash, the dragon charged at him. Fenn leapt back, tripping over a tree root and slamming the back of his head against the trunk. The dragon roared as it leapt into the sky with a beat of its wings, before it shifted into a thousand green scales that burst into fragments of light.
Fenn gasped in shock and watched as overhead, every individual scale shifted from light into countless silver butterflies. Air forced from his lungs, Fenn could do nothing but groan and gaze up in wonder as the thousand butterflies reformed overhead, turning back into the translucent green dragon that soared underneath the canopy, mist wreathing its limbs.
A shaft of sunlight broke through the leaves and cast rainbows of light on the forest floor where it touched the dragon. It arced in the sky, powering on wings of pressed silver, before it dived towards the ground—directly at him.
Fenn covered his head, bracing for impact, for the death he’d escaped prior to finally catch him.
Hardly able to believe he’d cheated death again, he cautiously opened one eye to see four enormous talons less than an inch from his face. He quickly pushed himself up to sit.
‘You’re supposed to answer when you are asked a question.’ Disdain was evident in the dragon’s tone.
Fenn blinked stupidly for longer than he wanted to. Was it a dream? Had to be. It was a damned vivid one if so. He’d have to swear off wine forever more. ‘Um. Sorry?’
The dragon snorted, clearly unimpressed.
The headache that had been throbbing at his temples increased. He had a sudden urge to vomit, but he held himself together before he could begin retching. Any earlier dread he’d felt had washed away by the sheer absurdity of it all.
‘I ask again. Where have you come from?’
In truth, Fenn wanted to know that himself. If he didn’t know, how was he expected to tell anyone else? Instead, he opted to ask the dragon a question to stall for time, hoping hitting his head against the tree trunk might force some of his memories back into existence. ‘Where did you come from?’
‘You cannot tell? Foolish creature. I am the spirit of this forest.’ Its voice was soft and languid. ‘You are in my domain. Causing damage. I heard the vines cry out.’
Now Fenn knew he was dreaming. ‘How can you be…a forest? A spirit? You’re as real as I am.’ As if to prove his point, he reached out and touched the creature’s smooth scales, accidentally wiping mud across its warm snout.
The dragon snarled, and realising his transgression, Fenn immediately withdrew his hand.
‘You dare touch the Spirit of Salt Ash? I have cursed people for far less.’ Flames danced in its open jaws.
Despite the clear warning, Fenn sensed a little amusement from the dragon. ‘I’ve never seen a spirit before. Never been here before. How was I supposed to know?’
Another rumble from the dragon. More amusement. It didn’t seem to care about the smear of mud across its muzzle. ‘How can you be unaware of Tassar’s Guardians? Are you sick? Tainted in some way?’
Fenn avoided the dragon’s questions as he tried to think of a way out of his situation. The filthy mud stuck his clothes to his skin and he shuddered at the sensation. ‘Are you going to kill me?’
The dragon considered for several long seconds. ‘No.’
He gulped down a lungful of air as if it would give him strength and confidence. ‘Then can you help me? I don’t know where I am. Who I am! Or where I’m from.’
The dragon’s pupils dilated. ‘You are in my domain, lost one. I told you. Salt Ash.’
Tilting its head to one side, the dragon let out a plume of smoke from its nostrils. ‘You really do not know? How fascinating…’
The dragon’s reluctance to give him a straight answer was infuriating, and already Fenn could feel the strength leaving his knees. ‘Please! If you won’t kill me, help me!’
Something low rumbled in the dragon’s vast chest that was akin to laughter. ‘I will watch you for a while. You are…interesting. If you harm my domain again, I shall kill you, and you shall be a feast for my forest.’
Fenn didn’t question it. An argument was a poor choice when the predator had already agreed he wasn’t going to eat him. He licked his lips and let out a slow breath to steady his nerves.
The dragon leaned forward and brushed Fenn’s forehead with its muzzle, then with a sudden burst of speed, passed through him and the tree, and fire sparked across Fenn’s chest for a heartbeat. The dragon again shifted into a myriad of light and silver butterflies, and disappeared into the depths of the trees.
It was as if the entire forest burst into life in his head. Every bird, every insect, every animal that made this place its home was alive in his mind. All the flowers, grass, trees, plants. An explosion of light and sound and motion. He heard each and every one, their voices high and laughing, or low and rumbling. A perfect balance of chaos, surrounded by the dragon’s fire.
Fenn’s headache intensified. He sank to one knee and clutched his head with both hands. He could do nothing but focus on his breathing as the fire in his body dimmed. With every exhale, the intensity of the forest dwindled, slowly softening, lessening, until he was left in the humid glade with only his own, shallow breathing for company.
His arms tingled all over from his wounds, sweat dripped down his nose, and every muscle trembled. He wasn’t sure he could even wipe his face without passing out.
Somewhere behind him, a twig snapped.
Fenn gasped in surprise and fear.
Footsteps. And a voice. Two voices. Both female.
‘…This stinking swamp.’
‘It wasn’t there yesterday! You know what Hassen is like. Just having fun when he gets bored.’
‘Gods, I miss the mountains. No swamps. No spirits. Just clear air, excellent views, and water that doesn’t randomly change based on a spirit’s sense of fun.’
Responding laughter. ‘You told me if you saw another mountain again it’d be too soon.’
‘A lot changes in seven years, Jisyel. I’m just tired of traipsing through a forest where trees constantly shift and repulsive bogs appear every handful of days.’
More laughter, from the one referred to as Jisyel. Her voice was flighty, constantly on the edge of giggles, as if everything amused her.
Fenn squatted down beside the tree, leaning on it for support, and waited for them to appear.
‘I know, I know. “You can take the Bragalian out of the mountain, but not the mountain out of the Bragalian.” Calidra, you can go back anytime you want. Nothing’s keeping you here!’
Calidra snorted. ‘You’re doing a good job of that.’
The voices grew louder. They couldn’t have been more than a handful of paces away.
Fenn gulped, wondering whether it would be better to try and get away, hide, or remain where he was. And hope they didn’t hurt him—or worse—the moment they spotted him.
But he’d survived an encounter with a dragon spirit. Surely he could survive these two? And if the dragon wasn’t prepared to help, perhaps they would be. It wasn’t as if he had many other options. He turned to face them when his legs cramped up and he stumbled to the ground with a yelp of agony.
Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Almost at the same time, the two women appeared on the far side of the glade. The taller one stopped by the edge of the mud, one hand on her hip, frowning. Sunlight lit up her pale skin and bright auburn hair, making her seem as translucent as the dragon. ‘Strange. It’s iced over. Hassen must’ve been here recently.’
‘A shame he didn’t bother to restore the bog to the pond it should’ve been.’ The second woman, Calidra, pinched the bridge of her nose. She was shorter than Jisyel, her skin nut brown, with quick eyes that spotted Fenn a heartbeat later. She drew a long hunting dagger from her belt and held it up, the blade glinting silver. ‘You. Boy. I see you. Step out of the shadows before my blade finds you.’ Even from across the glade, her gaze was intense.
Fenn gulped, trembling all over. Jisyel appeared unarmed, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t hurt him, too. He tried to straighten up and winced, doubling over again.
‘I am running out of patience. Do you have a strong desire to die today?’
‘Okay, okay. Wait a second, please! I’m hurt!’ Glad he’d found his voice before Calidra had decided to act, Fenn raised both hands and stumbled out of the tree’s shadow, his legs screaming in pain. He knew he must have been quite a sight, his entire lower-half was black with rapidly-drying mud, blood flowed down his arms, and the rest of him was as dishevelled as a street urchin.
‘What are you doing down there?’ Calidra pressed, her knife held high, with no signs of being lowered. She’d cut straight to the point, not even bothering to ask about his bizarre appearance.
‘I…don’t know,’ Fenn answered. It sounded ridiculous, even to him, but there was no other answer. ‘Honestly, I’m not in this state by choice!’ He offered a grin.
Jisyel laughed and shook her head, but Calidra was unmoved. If anything, her scowl deepened.
Licking his lips, he dropped the humour. Clearly it wouldn’t help. ‘I think I hit my head. Woke up in the middle of that.’ He gestured to the mud pool. ‘Before it was iced, I mean. Can you tell me where I am? There was a dragon, called himself a forest spirit and—’
‘Hassen cursed you?’ Calidra interrupted, raising an eyebrow and lowering her blade slightly, her demeanour softening.
‘Cursed me?’ Fenn repeated.
‘He’s been known to.’ Jisyel gave a cautious smile and pressed on Calidra’s arm, forcing the other woman to lower her dagger. ‘What about before that? Where are you from?’
Fenn shrugged. ‘I really don’t know. It…my head hurts so much.’ He clutched it with one hand, swaying on his feet. ‘Please, I…I need help.’
Calidra pulled away from Jisyel and raised her blade again. ‘Could be a trick.’
‘I’m not lying!’
‘Relax, Cal. I don’t think it’s hogshit. He seems desperate,’ Jisyel said. ‘Why not bring him to gran? Not like he can hurt us in the state he’s in.’
Calidra huffed at Jisyel’s words and brusquely sheathed her dagger, evidently deciding he posed no threat. ‘Can’t take him back. Bell will throw a fit, and he’ll stink up the whole place.’
‘Nonsense. A bath and some new clothes and he’ll be fine. Can’t just leave him out here, can we?’ Jisyel gestured towards Fenn with an open palm. ‘Look, he doesn’t even have both his shoes!’
‘Of course we can leave him. Who knows what some raving lunatic will do? Especially if Hassen’s cursed him. You don’t have to help everyone who wanders through the forest! Best march him to port and send him to the mainland. The Inquisitors will pick him up soon enough. They can deal with him.’
‘With what papers? Look at him, Calidra. Poor thing’s been dragged through that mud. Hassen’s obviously had some fun with him. He wouldn’t last two minutes in Bragalia by himself, and you know it.’
Calidra rolled her eyes as if this was an argument she’d had many times before. ‘Well, just leave him here, then. Perhaps a bear or a pack of forest wolves’ll have him and—’
‘Please!’ Fenn hobbled around the bog towards them, leaving muddy prints across the vibrant green grass. His vision flickered in terror at the thought of being thrown to the wolves. ‘I’m no good for eating! Just give me a chance? A bit of help? I’ll do what you need. Clean. Cook.’ He thought desperately for some way he could make himself useful. ‘Whatever you need! I just need to get my head sorted and—’ Fenn swayed again, the stabbing headache almost crushing his ability to speak. Desperate, he tried to argue his case. ‘A few days, I just…I…’
With a groan of agony, he collapsed.
* * *
Soft cotton sheets. A pillow stuffed with goose down. The richly floral scent of lavender soap.
Fenn forced his eyes open and found himself lying in bed in a small room. His skin tingled, and he looked down to see a thick, green paste smeared over the cuts on his arms. Touching it with his fingertips, he brought them close to his face and, after a cautious sniff, frowned. It smelled awful—worse even than the swamp sludge. It had to be medicine of some sort. Medicine always smelled awful. The paste had numbed his wounds, however, and even his headache had lessened to a more manageable level.
Most of the mud had been washed from his arms, but he could still feel it caked around his waist and legs. He shuddered at the feeling and sat up gingerly. Glancing around, he tried to recognise something, anything. Three more beds were nestled against the far wall of the comfortable room, which had been furnished with a bookshelf, wardrobe, a low table with a large bowl of steaming water and a nub of soap, and a wooden chair at the end of each bed. There was a painting on the wall depicting a farmstead and pigs bristling with hair wandering around in front of a gate. The door to the room was made of heavy wood, but was closed.
Nothing stood out. He drew a blank. Clearly several people could sleep in the room, but he couldn’t tell more than that.
Had he been here before and forgotten, like everything else? Or was this place somewhere new?
An open window beside his bed let in the deep, orange light of sunset, and he wondered how long he’d been asleep. Dust motes fluttered in the shaft of light, oddly calming as he watched them.
Muffled voices drifted up from somewhere below him—so he was upstairs. He held himself still, trying to listen. He couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like Calidra and Jisyel, along with other voices. The floorboards were too thick for him to make much sense of what was being said, but he could tell the voices were raised with some emotion he couldn’t place.
He lifted the sheets off himself, desperate to get to the bowl of water and clean off the sticky mud, when footsteps thundered towards the closed door.
Sinking back into the pillow and closing his eyes, he held his breath as the door burst open.
‘Calidra, please! Wait!’
Aware that two people had entered the room, but afraid to open his eyes and show he was awake, Fenn concentrated on his breathing and keeping as quiet as possible.
Someone threw open the wardrobe in the room’s corner and began rifling through the clothes, contents spilling out and rolling onto the wooden floorboards.
‘Tell me what the message said! No-one ever bothers to send us stuff out here, don’t hog it all to yourself!’ Jisyel’s voice pleaded.
More shuffling of clothes. Drawers were opened, then aggressively slammed shut. Feet stomped around the room, and Fenn felt the radiating anger even through his closed eyelids.
‘Please? Cal?’ Jisyel’s tone was no longer light. Utterly serious.
Calidra took a deep breath. ‘Jisyel…’ She sounded distant, as if she stood far away and not on the other side of the room. ‘It came from Fellwood. It…it stated that a terrible sickness had taken the life of the Laird, and I am requested at his funeral, one week hence.’
Unable to resist any longer, Fenn turned his head minutely and opened one eye.
Jisyel rested a hand on Calidra’s cheek, the rest of her cheeriness diminishing. ‘Calidra…’
The other woman trembled and looked away, her hands balling into fists as she whispered, ‘It’s father. He’s…finally gone.’