(Continued from Part III)

In his fifty years, Cutter had never ventured this far into the slough.  The reason behind that fact had nothing to do with fear, but with necessity.  He only used the slough for hunting dragons, and wandering deeper did not advance that purpose.  The slough stood 200 miles wide at its broadest and a full 100 miles from Westering Village to the point where it leaked brackish waters into the Great Western Sea.  The island dragons presumably dropped their spawn near the ocean end of the slough. The hatchlings then worked their way eastward up the brown, slow-moving rivers, eating as they swam and growing as they ate.

As a result, by the time they reached Westering Village, located where the clear creeks of the Upper Forest trickled into the murky pools and eddies of the swamp, the wyrmlings had gained size enough to provide leather for the small articles that Cutter made, and, he reflected, those Moragan excelled at making.  Hunting deeper in the swamp merely meant he would find smaller prey. However, as he now sought the source of that prey, he needed to penetrate to its very heart. He might even need to cross it completely to the Great Western Sea.

The swamp ate time as it ate sounds: it simply devoured, leaving no trace behind.  Cutter could not gauge how far he had traveled, nor could he judge his speed, for the slough was a jumble of enormous dark cedars, bright green hanging moss, and brown pools splotched with tufts of tough river grass.  Though there were occasional elevated clearings where he could see the sky or camp away from the gnats and mosquitoes, there were no trails and seemingly no animals that might make any.

Other than a few chattering squirrels nearer the plain, Cutter had not heard an animal in 3 days. He thought he had seen a dragon once, high and behind him, or maybe it was just a buzzard. But he did not hear it.  Even his steps fell silently in this endless place. He was not concerned about getting lost in the swamp: all the water moved at varying speeds toward the sea to the west.  He had been moving downstream for days, and returning home would be a matter of traveling upstream instead.  But it bothered him that he knew neither how far he had come, nor how much further he needed to go. It bothered him even more that finding dragon eggs in an endless swamp was a hopeless task.

He noted with some satisfaction that the dragons here were much smaller than the place where he had entered the slough. They did not squeak so loudly when you harvested them, either. Having no desire to carry them with him, he had left a bloody trail of dead wyrmlings such as anyone could have followed. Had there been anyone in this forsaken place to follow it, he reminded himself.

The sun began its eighth descent since Cutter left home. Cutter decided that the broad, elevated clearing he had just entered was likely the last he would find before dark. Rather than punishing his aching legs further, he would stop here.  The clearing looked perfect for such a rest: an acre or more of slightly waving grass surrounded by a few large hardwoods and many smaller ones. A few were changing colors with the season, and two in particular moved his heart. One maple stood like a blaze orange sentinel at the northern end.  His comrade, dressed in crimson, likewise guarded the southern.  The clearing neither looked nor smelled anything like the endless swamp. It would provide a very welcome rest indeed.

A shadow, like that of an enormous bat, crossed the knee high grass in front of him. Somehow Cutter knew it was Moira even before he looked up…

(Continued in Part V)