"You have the whole world to choose from and this is the job that you pick?" Leopold asked, looking out over the swamp that stretched before him. It was thick with trees and swamp plants but not so thick as to hide the sticky, squelchy mud underneath. The smell was horrible but every so often a large bubble would rise to the surface of the mud and burst, releasing a foul odor that, as Midas was fond of saying, would knock a buzzard off a manure wagon. A dull sucking sound indicated that this had happened again, and Leopold's nostrils were assaulted by the awful stink.
"Holy cow!" Midas said. "That's strong enough to knock a buzzard off a manure wagon!"
"I didn't have the 'whole world' to chose from, as you would put it," Daniel responded to Leopold's earlier question. "This was the only job that was even worth doing. It was either this or kill stray dogs that were killing some poor fool's chickens. I mean seriously, why doesn't he just get a dog of his own and have it chase off the strays?"
"Because then the domestic dog would eat the chickens," Raven countered.
"Teach the stupid thing not to eat them," Daniel said. "It is possible to train a dog."
"So instead of killing stray dogs we're in a swamp," Leopold grumbled. "We'd better be getting paid a lot more to be in this filth."
"What are we even doing out here?" Midas asked. True to form, no one in The Group bothered asking Daniel what the job was until they had arrived at their staging location. Of course, that was because the contracts that he took were always good ones. This time was doubtful on that count.
"We're collecting stedillion," Daniel answered. "It's a plant that grows only on swampy ground. Apparently this swamp has more of it than anyplace in the surrounding area."
"So why are we gathering plants?" Leopold grumbled. "Couldn't someone else who was a little less overqualified do it?"
"Yeah, I seriously doubt there will be much use for my sword out here," Midas said. He slapped at his neck. "Unless I can figure out a way to use it to kill these infernal mosquitoes."
"Quit your belly aching and let's just get to work," Raven said. She was growing tired of the complaining of her three companions. "The sooner we start to collect these blasted plants, the sooner we can get out of this infernal swamp. What the heck does this plant even look like, anyway?"
"Like this," Daniel answered, stooping to pick a scraggly weed-looking plant from the mud at his feet. It had a long, thick stalk with large thorns protruding from it. Its leaves were small and located along the length of the plant.
"There's tons of this stuff," Midas said, looking at the swamp around them. "This shouldn't take much time at all!"
"How much are we supposed to gather, exactly?" Leopold asked. He was ever the cautious one, never jumping to conclusions.
"Seventy bushels," Daniel said.
Leopold and Midas stared open mouthed at the wizard. Raven gave a sharp oath. Daniel ignored them and began to gather more of the stedillion.
"Be careful of the thorns," he said as he picked a stalk. "The plant carries a poison that is dispensed through the thorns. It won't kill you if you prick yourself on one, but it won't be pleasant either. Expect a lot of swelling."
"Well this just keeps getting better and better," Midas said. "Poison to go along with the stupid job. Are you aware of how long it will take to gather seventy bushels?"
"Yes, which is why I made sure that we brought equipment to set up a camp here," Daniel answered. "We have enough bags to gather the plants, and I've arranged for a courier to come every day and deliver what we have gathered to our patron."
"Setting up camp in the swamp," Leopold complained. "It's bad enough that it smells this bad, but we're going to be here for days. Holy crap, Daniel, sometimes I kind of hate you."
"I know it's not great, but it will pay the best," Daniel said. "Quit complaining and set up an area for camp and to collect the bags. The sooner that we collect our seventy bushels, the faster we can leave this stinking slime hole."
"Let's go, guys," Raven called as she walked to the horses. Reluctantly her friends followed her.
"It looks like the solid land ends here," Leopold noted. "Do we want to set up camp right where everything turns to mud?"
"It's kind of like the end of the world, in a way," Midas noted. "Once you step off into that marsh, no one knows if you'll come back or not."
"Shut up you big baby," Raven said. "Get the bags off of the horses and stack them in piles. Find someplace dry so that the full ones don't get moist."
"Yes mother," Midas said, somewhat uncharitably. He went off to perform the task leaving Leopold and Raven to set up the camp site. They didn't have any tents but only bed rolls, so the only task was to find an area that was relatively flat and dry. It had to be large enough for a fire in the middle with room around it for four people to sleep. The arrangement was easy to find, and Leopold and Raven were soon stripping off their outer garments and getting ready to go out into the swamp.
"It's so hot in this bloody place," Raven said. She pulled off her cloak and began to roll it.
"Hot as hell," Leopold agreed. He folded his cloak and dropped it on top of his bed roll. His boots and leggings came off next followed by his belt and trousers. Now all that he wore on his legs was a pair of knee length under breaches.
"You haven't said much about this contract, Raven," Leopold said.
"There's not much to say," Raven responded. "We get in, he get done, we get out, we get paid. It's simple, just like everything else that we do."
"But why in heaven's name would Daniel take this contract?" Leopold asked. He pulled his tunic over his head and dropped it with the rest of his clothing. All that covered his torso now was a short sleeved undershirt.
"He said that it paid the most," Raven shot back. "We've trusted him to bring in the contracts so far, and we need to keep trusting him to do that. Just because we don't like the contract doesn't mean that it isn't the best one he could find."
"But we aren't supposed to do this sort of thing," Leopold said. He shoved his feet into his boots and began to fasten them back. "We're not weed collectors, we're assassins; we're thieves; we're problem solvers."
"Exactly," Raven agreed. "Right now the problem is that someone doesn't have seventy bushels of stedillion."
"That's not what I meant," Leopold said. He stood and turned to face Raven. She had removed her outer garments as well and was dressed as Leopold with the exception that she also wore a knee length skirt. Her hair was pulled back now and fastened behind her head, exposing the scars that adorned her cheeks. In a strange way, they complemented the one across her eye and mouth.
Leopold felt his breath catch in his throat momentarily at the sight of his friend. It must have been the marsh air gumming up his lungs. He cleared his throat, but there was still a sizable lump in it. Raven retrieved her belt and knife from her clothes and strapped it around her slim waist. Leopold swallowed hard, noting again how difficult it was to breath. Drat this marsh air!
"You ready to go?" Raven asked. Leopold grabbed his knife and nodded. Quickly he strapped it to his left thigh where it belonged and followed her out into the swamp. They didn't have far to go; the stedillion was everywhere.