The passengers and crew pushed further south over the next few days. The hardwood forest of oaks and deciduous trees gave way to a mix of cypress and oaks along the banks that towered over the river’s edge like mute sentinels. The air grew still and stale, and more humid the further south they went, and the smell of muddy swamp water permeated everything. Insects like dragonflies and gnats became more common, and songbirds mixed with water birds flew overhead. The river’s natural flow was winding and snake-like through the bogs, bayous, and savannahs that opened up occasionally. The only sign of any presence of humans was the occasional boat moving upstream from the sea.
After a week and a half of traveling down through the swamps, they came into sight of the outpost. It lay on the west bank of the river along a long, raised boardwalk with several docks that jutted out into the water. Several boats moored to the docks, but not nearly as many as there had been at Rhattaay’s docks. Thawbai and his crew skillfully maneuvered the craft around one of the docks and moored the boat to the dock’s downstream side. The water pushed against the boat until it settled into a pattern, and the crew extended a plank so the passengers could disembark.
The passengers got off the boat and inspected the outpost. It was little more than a dozen buildings that line the boardwalk. They were all raised on stilts over the mud below them. There was a tavern, a few residences, and a few shops that catered to travelers going up and down the river.
“Now, to figure out how to get to the ruins,” Camon said.
“Shouldn’t be hard,” Achara noted. “We’re not the first ones to do it.”
Camon went into one of the shops and looked around. They had clothing, equipment for boats, and a small selection of provisions for sale. Camon went to the shopkeeper who was behind a hastily built counter at the back of the shop. The shopkeeper was a tall young man with dark hair and dark eyes.
“What can I get for you?” he said.
“I’m looking for someone who can tell me how to get to the ruins,” Camon said.
“The ruins? You must be with another expedition from the university,” the man inferred. “They’re the only ones that care about such things.”
“I guess it’s pretty obvious then,” Camon said.
“Talk to Katima in the tavern. She often serves as a guide for folks wanting to explore the swamps,” the shopkeeper said.
“Thanks,” Camon said. He then went over and bought some dried fruit and left the shop. The other passengers followed him down to the tavern, and they all went in. The building was much larger than the shop with several tables and chairs sets and a crude bar set up at the back of the building. There was a middle-aged woman behind the bar. Camon approached her. “You must be Katima,” he greeted.
“Yep. That’s me,” she said. “How may I help ya?”
“We’re looking to go to the ruins,” Camon said.
“I can help you with that,” she answered. “But it will cost you.”
“We’re an expedition from the university.”
“They’re good on payment. I take it in advance, though.”
“If you’re the one, then I think we can arrange that.”
“Is it just the four of you?” she asked.
“Just the four of us,” Camon replied.
“Small crew. They usually send at least a dozen. Doesn’t matter, though. The cost is the same.”
“I have the coin,” Camon stated.
“Then you got yourself a guide. Best we leave in the morning.”
“How do we get there?” Camon asked.
“Overland to the lake along a levee. At the lake, we’ll build a raft and pole out across the lake to the ruins.”
“You wanna haul a boat?” she retorted.
“A raft will do then,” Camon said.
“What I thought.”
“Oh, and one more thing. Out there, I’m in charge. You do as I say, or you don’t go,” she said.
“You’re not going to hear me object.”
“Good,” she commented.
“While I’m at it, I’ll take a round of drinks for my friend. Ale, if you have it.”
“That’s all we got,” she said. “Your choices are ale or no ale.”
Camon passed a silver piece to her, and she made four large steins of ale. Camon brought them to the table where his companions were seated. They all drank it slowly before they left the tavern and went back to the boat. The crew had disembarked, but Thawbai was still aboard, taking down the sail and reinforcing the moorings.
“We’ve got the guide inland,” Camon said to Thawbai. “You can come if you’d like, but you can also stay here.”
“We’ll camp out here until you get back,” Thawbai said. “I like water, but only when it moves.”
Camon nodded, “We’ll stay on board tonight and leave in the morning.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Thawbai said.
The rest of the day, they passed gambling with the crew onboard the boat. The sailors had taught them a dice game and a few card games that had become a pastime for the passengers and crew alike. They all enjoyed it and even made a low stakes betting system for it. Jorn had managed to win more than he lost at the games. They all spent the night on the boat, and early the next morning, they all awoke. The passengers again disembarked, this time with their gear. Camon carried his pack on his back and sword on his waist. Jorn was slung with a satchel of things and carried his sword on his back. Achara was dressed in snug woodland garb with a pair of crossbows strapped across her back. Ghing carried a pack and was unarmed.
Katima greeted them on the docks, “Y’all look like you’re going to war!”
“You can’t be too careful in these parts,” Camon said.
“You gotta point there,” Katima agreed. “Shouldn’t be anything out there. You got my coin?”
Camon pitched her a sack of money, and she caught it. She loosened the strings and looked in and then tightened it.
“Alright, let’s get going,” she said.
She led them to the end of the boardwalk, where there was a pile of supplies lying on the dock. She divided the load between the travelers, giving them all something to carry. She took on a bit herself, then climbed down a ladder at the end of the boardwalk to the earth below. It was a sandy embankment covered with vegetation.
“It’s on foot from here. The lake is about a day’s walk. It’ll take us about a day to build the raft, and a few hours to cross the lake,” Katima said. She turned and started upstream, walking along the sandy ridge around trees. She drew her machete and whacked branches out of the way, clearing the way for the folks behind her. They all carefully followed her footsteps all the way.
After a few hours of following the river, they turned inland to the west, away from the river along another ridge that went away from the river. They came to a bayou where the ridge joined another one, and they followed the bank along the bayou for miles inland as it snaked through the swamp. Deeper inland, the canopy of trees made the swamp’s murky waters and bayou look even murkier than it was. Green slime covered large swaths of the water, and thick vegetation grew wherever there was land, and the trees themselves just grew straight out of the swamp. Moss draped from the branches all around them with spider webs filling in the gaps. Birds chirped, insects buzzed, and animals chattered all about.
Towards evening, they could see a clearing in the trees overhead, and then they emerged onto the shore of a wide, curving lake that was blue, a stark contrast from the swamp’s murky waters. They could also feel a breeze blowing across the lake that caused small whitecaps on the lake to form.
“We’ll camp here tonight,” Katima said. She then broke out some string and a hook and scratched around in the debris on the ground and found some worms. She found a long stick, tied the hook and string to it, baited the hook with one of the worms, and dropped it in the water. Within minutes, she had a fish. She unhooked it and did this a few more times before she had a mess of fish. The others watched with intrigue as she performed. “Hope ya’ll like fish,” she said.
No one objected, and she then got out a knife and scaled them, removed the heads, and then their entrails. Ghing grimaced at the sight, but the rest of them didn’t seem to mind. Before too long, she went about gathering sticks with the help of the travelers. They made a large pile of sticks, and she used some flint to start a fire, which Camon and Achara helped build. Meanwhile, Katima cut a few fresh branches from a tree, whittled away the bark, and sharpened the ends. She stuck the fish through with the stick and set them over the fire, turning them occasionally. Once they were done, she removed them from the fire and let them cool for a moment, before she removed them carefully and handed a few to each of the travelers. They ate this along with some bread and cheese from their provisions as the sun was sinking in the west.
After dinner, they gathered enough firewood to last through the night, and many of them went to sleep soon after that. The night in the swamp was a cacophony of cricket and frogs that was almost deafening but slowly faded into white noise as one drifted into sleep. Camon took a watch along with Achara for the second half of the night.
They all awoke the next morning to the sounds of songbirds. They ate some breakfast around the remains of the now smoldering fire. Katima instructed them to start finding and cutting wood from any source they could find. They went up and down the elevated embankment looking for small trees, fallen branches, and low branches that they could cut. They kept the supply coming. Katima worked with Achara, and they lashed together a raft about fifteen feet in length and about that same width. When it was finished, they found some longer branches about twenty feet in length and cut one for each person. By midday, the raft was done.
“Ya’ll get stuff done,” Katima commented.
“Well, there are only five of us,” Achara said. “This raft doesn’t need to be as those you typically make, I’m guessing.”
“Yep,” she said. “We can start the crossing.”
They put the craft on the edge of the lake. They all boarded and spread themselves out over the face of the raft to even out the weight. They all piled their gear in the middle but kept their weapons close by. They then pushed off the bank and poled out across the lake.
“How deep does this get?” Jorn asked.
“Fifteen feet,” Katima replied. “Used to be a part of the river. Silt filled er’ in, and the river shifted.”
They worked the raft across the lake, which was not more than a mile to the other side, but Katima had them going south from the spot they launched. They made progress to the other side even though the wind was working against them from the west.
As the sun was sinking low in the west, the ruins came into view through the dense forest on the lake’s western side. Amid the trees, they saw the stone structures built upon high mounds. The structures were still mostly intact even though trees had managed to push their way up through some of the buildings and spread their canopies wide over the ruins. Moss covered most of the structures that they could see, but even so, there was no mistaking the buildings. The various mounds were joined by an elaborate system of raised stone walkways. When they got closer, they saw the remains of an old stone wharf that lined the lake’s side. Katima instructed them to move in closer to the wharf. They got closer to the wharf and found a staircase leading up to the wharf from water level. They brought the raft in close to the stairs, and one by one, they all jumped off. Katima was last, and they formed a line along the stairs as they passed the gear from the raft up the stairs to the wharf’s surface. When the raft was unloaded, Katima tied a rope to it and then leaped to the stairs herself, and everyone climbed up. Katima then moored the raft to the wharf on a mooring pillar at the edge.
By then, the sun was well behind the trees as it cast long shadows over where they were standing.
“We’d best stay here on the wharf tonight,” Katima suggested. “You can explore the city tomorrow.”
No one objected, but Ghing didn’t take his eyes off the ruins. Camon walked over to Jorn and tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to Ghing and, in a low voice, muttered, “Keep an eye on him. He’s going to want to wander off into the city.”
“I will,” Jorn said solemnly.
The wharf’s surface was anything but clean. It was hardly discernable from the forest floor itself, covered with debris, plant growth, fallen limbs, all sorts of mosses, and even some flowers.
“If I didn’t know better, I would never guess I was standing on a man-made structure. The craftsmanship on this is remarkable to have lasted so long and to have to hold up to water, wind, sun, and all the weight of these plants it’s holding,” Achara said.
“Wait’ll ya see the city,” Katima said.
“I can hardly wait,” Ghing exclaimed.
“You’d better,” Camon warned.
Camon and Achara gathered fallen deadwood from the surrounding area and built a fire. They ate from their provisions this night instead of eating fish from the lake. After the sun went down, clouds moved in and blocked the light of the moons. The fire was the only light they had, so they fed it as much as possible to keep the flames bright. Katima announced she would take the first watch. The cacophony of insects and frogs started again. No one felt social that night, and all went to sleep not too long after eating being too tired from the long day of building the raft and poling across the lake.