They cast Brant into the swamp, leaving him to die because none of them had the guts to kill him themselves. They’d push him into the muck and the mud, but getting their hands dirty was beneath them. They thought it made them better people, but it only made them cowards, hiding behind tradition and rules they all followed without question.
Noma had hesitated to follow Brant. She would’ve liked herself more if she hadn’t, but she wasn’t as strong as she hoped. She watched him trudge into the mire and thought there wasn’t any point throwing her own life away when she couldn’t save his. Whatever cruel mercies the swamp offered, it never surrendered a sacrifice.
She wasn’t broken. She was still useful, even a bit pretty. If she stayed, she’d be sure to find a suitable husband and a nice home and as much happiness as their gods allowed them. But in a village of blind fools and harsh gods, she wondered if there could ever be anything of the sort.
She caught up to him, limping through the mud, and put her arm over his shoulder. He could move adequately with his crutch, but she could help.
“You don’t have to–” he said.
She smiled. Until now, she’d never pondered the harsh miseries of her world. Until the accident, she had assumed they would marry and everything would go on as it was supposed to. Now she saw it as all a lie. Even if the gods hadn’t taken his leg, there was always someone somewhere being sacrificed. It shamed her that she hadn’t realized that before.
It was said that those who managed to cross the swamp might find peace on the other side. Another lie, but they carried on, believing it because they had nothing else to believe in. They managed to avoid the hungry river reptiles and the venomous beasts, but exhaustion set in. They stopped to catch their breath.
“You should go on without me,” he said.
“We go together,” she replied as she took his hand.
A withered shape lurched from the darkness. The thing was almost a woman, but not quite. Hunched and pale-skinned and with a face absent of features save a single, sickly green eye.
“What do we have here?” asked the hag. “Two new visitors to my kingdom?”
They were too worn out to be frightened by the long-toothed woman, the goddess of this marsh.
“I see this young man belongs here,” she said, “but why are you here?”
She noticed their clasped hands and nodded to herself. “It is a special kind of foolishness to die like this when you don’t have to.”
“I love him,” said Noma.
“You’re young. Love is easy when you’re young. Talk to me in another twenty years.” She poked a long, gnarled finger into her ear and pulled out a spider. She dropped it to the ground, and it skittered away. “Come along then.”
She disappeared into the swamp, and they followed. Their lives were hers to do with as she willed. They saw no point in resisting. The vegetation parted for the hag, and the mud stopped clinging so tenaciously.
“Are you going to eat us?” asked Noma.
A coughing chuckle was her reply.
“Are you a god?” asked Brant.
“I don’t know. I think I was. Once. I remember a place, and it was beautiful. More beautiful than I can say, but it wasn’t a place I wanted to be. I left. And here I am. Here I have always been. Waiting.”
“Waiting for what?” asked Noma.
They arrived at a village. A child with one arm and another with a missing eye ran past them.
“What is this place?”
“Just a place,” said the hag. “Damp and cold, but home to some.” She plucked a black rose from the ground and handed it to the one-armed girl. “It isn’t much, but it is more than some will ever have.”
“You aren’t going to kill us?” asked Brant.
“What do your deaths matter to me?” replied the hag. “Whether they come today or tomorrow or seventy years from now, my sacrifices come to me one way or another. In the meanwhile, live as best you can.”
She loped away into the gray swamp.
“Thank you,” said Noma.
“Don’t thank me,” said the goddess of the mire. “Leave the gods to our own affairs and live.”
She disappeared into the darkness.
Noma lifted Brant over her shoulder, and the two of them walked into their new home. Maybe the first true home they’d ever known.