Blackbeard raised a face that was a huge, unfolding orchid. The stalks of the stamen spasmed and a voice whistled, "Yes. Bonnett."
Davies' bouquet-head nodded.
Shandy felt cold water flowing between his toes and realized that his feet had become roots and had penetrated the boat's hull. He found, though, that he couldn't bring himself to nod. "No," he whispered through a throatful of twisting reeds. "Can't. Did I ... throw you ... to the Navy?"
Davies' shoulders slumped. "Damn you," he fluted, "Jack."
Shandy glanced again at the third boat. Leo Friend was a fat wet trunk with branches like spider legs projecting in all directions. A thing like a fungus-overgrown cypress stump seemed to be Stede Bonnett, and Hurwood, no longer able to speak, was now just a thick cluster of ferns that heaved furiously about as if in a high wind.
Davies labored on at the oars, but their boat was coming apart faster than the other two, and had already sunk almost to the gunwales. Shandy thought there was probably still time for Davies to stop rowing, let Hurwood's boat drift up alongside, uproot Bonnett and pitch him into the water. With such a tribute the thing might let the rest of them go ... but Shandy had apparently talked Davies out of that course.
Then Davies hitched himself up, and let go of the oars.
He's going to do it, thought Shandy. It's wrong, Phil, I don't like it, but for God's sake hurry.
Davies lifted one booted foot and dragged across its muddy sole the palm frond that had recently been his right hand. The left one joined it, and, while Shandy wondered what the hell the man was doing, the two floppy green hands rolled the mud into a ball.
Goddamn it, Phil, thought Shandy, what good is a mud ball?
Shandy's horribly elongated toes had found the river bottom and begun to dig in, and he felt nutrients coursing up his legs. His hands were gone, with not even a seam in the fresh trunks to differentiate what had once been him from what had once been the boat.
Davies put one hand on the twitching gunwale, and instantly the hand took root; but the flowering pirate drew back his other hand, braced himself, and then flung the ball of mud straight up.
And a bomb seemed to go off. The air was compressed in a scream that deafened minds as much as ears, and sent the boats rocking violently away from one another. Then the pressure was gone and the air was suddenly very cold, and Shandy's teeth hurt when he drew a breath. He rolled over - and discovered that he could roll over, he was no longer rooted into the fabric of the boat, and the boat was a normal boat again and not a clump of writhing branches; it was even relatively dry inside. Beth was sprawled across the aft thwart - he couldn't tell if she was conscious, but at least she was breathing and had resumed her human shape. Davies was slumped over the oars, his eyes closed, laughing exhaustedly and cradling the hand he'd flung the mud ball with. The hand seemed to be burned. And somehow raindrops were pattering around them all, though the roof of the jungle was as solid as ever.
Shandy's ears were ringing, and he had to shout even to hear himself. "A ball of mud killed it?"
"Some of the mud on my boot was from the shore around the Fountain," Davies yelled back, just barely audible to Shandy, "well inside the area that's poison to all dead-but-animate things."
Shandy looked ahead. Blackbeard, apparently willing to get the explanation later, had picked up his oars and was rowing again. "May I presume to suggest," yelled Shandy giddily to Davies, "that we proceed the hell out of here with all due haste."
Davies pushed a stray lock of hair back from his forehead and sat down on the rower's thwart. "My dear fellow consider it done."
There was a sound like dogs barking or pigs grunting around them; with his ears still ringing it took Shandy a minute to realize that it was the fungus heads making the noise. "Vegetable boys noisy tonight!" he called over their racket.
"Drunk, I expect!" returned Davies with a slightly hysterical joviality. "Damned nuisance!"
Beth had pulled herself up and was sitting in the stern. She was staring ahead through half-shut eyes, and might have looked relaxed if it hadn't been for the white knuckles of her gunwale-clutching hands.
Fog began making faint halos around the torches. Some distance ahead of them Blackbeard's boat veered south, and, though Shandy directed Davies through what seemed to be the same channel, they could no longer see his boat; all the glints of reflected orange light seemed to be cast by their own boat's torch, and though they could hear Blackbeard's answering roar when they called, it was distant and they couldn't tell which direction it came from.
After he admitted to himself that they'd lost Blackbeard, Shandy looked back the way they had come. The boat with Hurwood, Friend and Bonnett in it was nowhere to be seen.
"We're on our own," he told Davies. "Do you think you can get us back to the sea?"
Davies paused to stare around at the pools and channels that were identical to all the others they had passed through, partitioned by crowded trees and roots and vines that differed in no perceptible way from any other part of the swamp. "Sure," he said, and spat into the oily water. "I'll steer by the stars."
Shandy looked up. The high roof of moss and branches and tangled vines was as solid as a cathedral ceiling.
For the next hour, during which Shandy called to the other boats but got no reply, and Beth didn't move a muscle, and the fog got steadily thicker, Davies rowed through the twisting channels, watching the slow current and trying to move in the same direction; he was impeded, though, by dead-end channels, still pools, and areas where the current turned back inland. Finally they found a broad channel that seemed to be flowing strongly. Shandy was glad they did, for the torch was burning more dimly all the time.
"This has got to work," Davies gasped as he rowed out into the middle of the current.
Shandy noticed that he winced as he hauled on the oars, and he suddenly remembered that Davies had burned his hand throwing the mud ball at the swamp-loa. He was about to insist on a turn at the oars when one of the fungus balls on the shore spoke. "Dead end," it croaked. "Bear left. Narrower, but you get there."
To his surprise, Shandy thought he recognized the voice. "What?" he called quickly to the white, blurry-featured sphere.
It didn't reply, and Davies kept rowing down the broad channel.
"It said this is a dead end," Shandy ventured after a moment.
"In the first place," said Davies, his voice hoarse with exhaustion, "it's stuck in the mud, so I don't see how it can know. And in the second place, why should we assume it wants to give us straight advice? We almost took root back there - this lad obviously did. Why should such a one want to give us straight advice? ... Misery loves company."
Shandy frowned doubtfully at the low-flickering torch. "But these ... I don't think these are what we were turning into. We were all turning into normal plants - flowers and bushes and whatnot. And we all seemed to be different from one another. These boys are all alike ... "
"Back, Jack," piped up another of the puffy white things. Again Shandy thought he caught a familiar intonation.
"If anything," said Davies stubbornly, "this channel is getting wider."
One of the fungus balls was dangling from a tree over the water, and as they passed it it opened a flap and said, "Bogs and quicksand ahead. Trust me, Jack."
Shandy looked at Davies. "That's ... my father's voice," he said unsteadily.
"It ... can't be," snarled Davies, hauling even more strongly on the oars.
Shandy looked away and said, into the darkness ahead, "Left, you say, Dad?"
"Yes," whispered another of the fungi. "But behind you - then with the current, to the sea."
Davies pulled two more strokes, then angrily jammed the oars down into the water. "Very well!" he said, and began working to turn the boat around. "Though I expect we'll wind up as mushroom-heads ourselves, giving wrong directions to the next lot of fools to venture in here."
By the guttering torchlight they found a gap in the mudbank, and Davies reluctantly rowed into it, leaving the wide, steady course behind. The cool white light of a spirit ball or two glowed for a moment in the fog behind them.
The fog was moving downriver thickly now, filtering through the tangled branches and vines like milk dripping into clear water; soon it was solid, and their torch was a diffused, luminous orange stain on the gray-black fabric of the night - but the channel they were in was so narrow that by stretching out his arm Shandy could feel the wet shrubbery on either side.
"It is beginning to quick up a bit," Davies admitted grudgingly.
Shandy nodded. The fog had made the night chilly, and when he began to shiver it occurred to him that Elizabeth was clad only in a light cotton shift. He took off his coat and draped it around her.
Then the boat passed through an arch so narrow that Davies had to draw in the oars, and a moment later the craft had surged out onto the face of a broad expanse of water, and they had left enough of the fog behind in the rain forest so that, after a few dozen more downstream oar-strokes, Shandy was able to see the glow of the three shore fires ahead.
"Hah!" he exclaimed joyfully, slapping Davies on his good shoulder. "Look at that!"
Davies peered around, then turned back with a grin. "And look back there," he said, nodding astern.
Shandy shifted around to look back, and saw, back in the fog, the weak glows of two torches. "The others made it as well," he observed, not very pleased.
Beth was looking back too. "Is ... my father in one of those boats?"
"Yes," Shandy told her, "but I won't let him hurt you."
For several minutes none of them spoke, and the boat began gradually slanting in toward shore as Davies let his burned hand do less work. The pirates on the shore finally noticed the approaching boats and began shouting and blowing horns.
"Did he try to hurt me?" Beth asked.
Shandy looked back at her. "Don't you remember? He ... " Belatedly, it occurred to him that there might be a better time to awaken her recent grisly memories. "Uh ... he made Friend cut your hand," he finished lamely.
She glanced at her hand, then didn't speak until they had drawn in near the fires, and men were wading out to help them ashore. "I remember you holding a knife to my throat," she said distantly.
Shandy bared his teeth in anguished impatience. "It was the dull side, and I never even touched you with it! That was to test him, to see if he still needed you to accomplish this magic, if some of your blood wasn't all he needed! Damn it, I'm trying to protect you! From him!" Several men had splashed up to their boat, and hands gripped the gunwales and began dragging it in toward shore.
"Magic," said Beth.
Shandy had to lean forward to hear her over the excited questions of the pirates. "Like it or not," he said to her loudly, "it's what we're involved in here."
She swung a leg over the side and jumped into the shallow water and looked back at him. The rocking bow-torch had almost expired, but it was bright enough to show the lines of strain in her face. "What you've chosen to become involved in," she said, then turned and began wading up toward the fires.
"You know," Shandy remarked to Davies, "I'm going to get her out of this ... just for the pleasure of showing her one more thing she's all wrong about."
"Are we glad to see you boys!" one of the jostling pirates exclaimed. They had dragged the boat all the way up onto the sand of the mangrove-shorn notch, and Shandy and Davies got out and stood up, stretching. The shouting began to die down.
"Glad to be out of there," Davies said.
"You must be hungry as hell," another man put in. "Or did you find something to eat in there?"
"Didn't have the leisure." Davies turned to watch the progress of the other two boats. "What time is it? Maybe Jack'd throw together some kind of pre-breakfast for us."
"I don't know, Phil, but it ain't late - no more'n an hour or two after sunset."
Shandy and Davies both turned to stare at him. "But we left about an hour after sunset," Shandy said. "And we've been gone at least several hours ... "
The pirate was looking at Shandy blankly, and Davies asked, "How long were we gone upriver?"
"Why ... two days," the man replied in some bewilderment. "Just about precise - dusk to dusk."
"Ah," said Davies, nodding thoughtfully.
"And ashes to ashes," put in Shandy, too tired to bother with making sense. He looked again toward the approaching boats. Idly, for in spite of his deductions all he wanted right now was an authoritative drink and a hammock and twelve hours of sleep, he wondered how he would prevent Hurwood from forcing Beth's soul out of her body so that the ghost of her mother, his wife, could move in.
In the morning the fog had overflowed its river boundaries and formed a damp, only dimly translucent veil over the land and sea, so chilly that the pirates huddled around the sizzling, popping fires, and it was almost midmorning, when the fog began to break up, before anyone noticed that the Vociferous Carmichael was gone; and another half hour of rowing up and down the shore in boats, and shouting and ringing bells, was wasted in confirming the ship's disappearance.
Most of her crew was ashore, and the first supposition was that she had somehow come unmoored and drifted away - then Hurwood came running down the slope from the hut yelling the news that his daughter was gone and he couldn't find Leo Friend.
Shandy was standing on the beach near one of the boats when Hurwood's news was relayed. Davies and Blackbeard stood a hundred feet away, talking in low, urgent tones, but they looked up when this fresh lot of shouting began.