The sun was up again and shining through the trees, and the mosquitoes and gnats were out in full vengeance. Leopold led The Group out into the marsh, heading toward a large patch of stedillion. Daniel had suggested that he lead the party since he was the youngest and had made some lame excuse out of that fact. Leopold knew that it was just an excuse; he could tell that Daniel was scared of this swamp. The wizard simply didn't want to be in the front in case there were ghosts or something of the sort lurking about. Leopold certainly didn't put any stock in stories of the sort; the worst thing that they had to contend with would be the plants that they were gathering and the bugs that continued to bite them. A snake might happen along or perhaps something a bit larger, but it was sure to be nothing that they couldn't handle. He looked back at his brother. The older boy had brought an axe today, ostensibly to aid in the plant gathering, but more likely it was to fight with should that become necessary. Even Raven seemed ready for a skirmish. Though she was dressed as lightly as the previous day, her hand rested on the hilt of her dagger, always ready to use it at a moment's notice.
Leopold smiled to himself. They were definitely a group of mercenaries, soldiers for hire, not herbalists paid to gather plants for some inquisitive doctor or scientist. Their skills were in the art of war, not in collecting plants and not in traversing swamps. He stepped in a hole hidden by the mud and sank up to his waist. Carefully he pulled his leg up, locking his foot so that his boot would not come off of it. He had almost pulled it free when he felt a large body bump into him, throwing him off balance and back into the hole.
"Not looking where you're going again, Midas?" Leopold asked as began to work his leg free again.
"How'd you know that it was me, Leo?" Midas asked, ignoring the question posed to him.
"Well, you're kind of too large to miss, even if it is just through a sense of touch," Leopold answered. "Pretty sure that Raven couldn't knock me over like that and Daniel, well, he's considerably more spindly than yourself."
"You calling me small?" Raven asked.
"Um, yes, I think so," Leopold answered. "Is that bad?"
"You think that I couldn't handle Midas in a fight, isn't that right?" Raven accused.
"Well, not too many people could handle Midas in a fight," Leopold responded. He had finally worked his foot out of the hole and continued walking. "You know, a lot of people would consider it a complement to imply that a girl is small."
"Since when?" Raven asked, turning to the other two for support.
"He is correct," Daniel said. Since he got out more than the rest of them combined, he had the best understanding of popular trends. "Last year is was fashionable to be big. The fatter the better was the slogan, I believe. Now, however, it's popular to be small, almost comically so."
"So despite his best efforts, my brother managed to be complimentary," Midas said. "That's classic Leo for you."
"It wasn't despite my best efforts," Leopold argued. "I wasn't trying to insult her. I was just saying that you're considerably larger than she is."
"I get it, though I think you should stop while you're behind," Daniel said. "I don't think Raven really likes this conversation much."
"How about this one," Midas said, coming to his brother's rescue. "Ever wondered what makes a swamp a swamp?"
"No," Raven said shortly. She was still glaring at Leopold.
"Why yes, I have, Midas," Daniel said. "What exactly is it that makes swamps like they are?"
"I have no idea," Midas answered. "I was kind of hoping that you would know. Then we could listen to you for a while, ooo and ahh over what you had just said, and maybe throw out a few theories of our own if we were feeling adventurous."
"Well, as it so happens, I actually have a theory about the topic," Daniel said. "Mind you, I don't know if this is true, but it does seem to have some validity to it. I came up with it, after all."
Daniel launched into his explanation, but Leopold wasn't paying attention, and from the looks of it, Raven wasn't either. The Group had reached the stedillion and were now gathering it, but she did not pay attention to the plants as she grabbed and cut them. Instead her eyes were fixed on Leopold, glaring a hole through him. He was impressed by her ability to handle the plants without looking at them and still keep her skin free of the thorns. She was obviously upset about something, though for the life of him, he didn't know what. With an inward sigh, he began to cut and gather the stubborn plants.
Three more days passed slowly due to the monotony of the contract that they were fulfilling. Every day they would cut and gather the stedillion, and every night they would bundle and bag it to be taken away the following morning. The swelling of The Group as a whole seemed to have gone down though it wasn't due to their increased ability to avoid the plants' thorns. At least, that certainly wasn't the case with Leopold. He continued to stick and scratch himself, the swelling simply wasn't as severe as before. It seemed as though he was developing an immunity to the poison of the stedillion.
The search for the plants continued unabated, and it was becoming harder and harder to find them. By the end of the second day the annoying, prickly stems could not be seen from the camp site anymore, and now, on day five, it was at least a half hour's walk to reach a descent patch. It appeared as if the plants liked solid ground for they were always found within sight on an island of it. Daniel noted this in his journal one night; Leopold figured that it would go into one of his scientific books when they got back to their headquarters.
Whoever it was that retrieved the bags of plants from their campsite was still a mystery to Leopold. Though they picked up the freshest crop every morning, it was after The Group ventured into the swamp again. Leopold worried at first, but Midas pointed out that Daniel seemed to trust them. He hadn't led them astray yet, and now wasn't the time to start doubting him. Leopold agreed that the logic of the argument was sound, but something still didn't sit right with him. His gut told him that something was out of place, but he had no proof to back that feeling up, so he kept it to himself.
When Leopold woke up on this particular day, the sixth of their sojourn in the marsh, everything seemed normal. By now he was oblivious to the rancid stench of the place and didn't even think about it as he stretched and sat up. The sun was probably getting ready to rise, but it was impossible to tell from beneath the trees. Eventually more light would begin to filter in, but right now the marsh was trapped in dusk. No one else appeared to be awake yet, so Leopold was silent as he rose and walked out of the camp.
For most people, "being silent" was just a turn of phrase, something that was to be strived for but never achieved; for Leopold, being silent was a way of life. Before being recruited into The Group, he had spent most of his life homeless on the street, stealing whatever he could to fill his belly, and silence had been a very successful method to accomplish this. Nowadays, with the jobs that Daniel dug up for him, he spent a large part of his life moving silently and keeping his mouth shut. These traits had carried over into his character over the years, and now he was as silent as was humanly possible.
Stepping past the pile of bags filled with stedillion, he headed a short distance to a large rock that rose out of the muck. To him, this was the icon of an ideal person, living in the swamp but rising above it. Though everything around it was soft and spongy, it provided a solid foundation to stand on. This what he wanted to be when he grew up, someone who was solid, even when everything around him was waiting to suck him down. Life did it a lot, he knew, taking descent people and turning them into slime. He didn't want to be like that, though deep in his heart he knew that he was already. He was a mercenary by profession, someone that would, that had, done anything as long as the price was right. He didn't want to be like that, it was just the hand that the world had dealt him.
Leopold heard the voices of the others and slid off of the rock with a sigh. It sucked going through life, hating what you did and hating even more the person that you were becoming. His only consolation was that he told himself that later he would be a better person. When he got rich, that was when he could straighten himself out. After all, scruples and a conscience were the commodity of the wealthy.
"Where were you off to so early?" Daniel asked as Leopold rounded the pile of full bags. The boy shrugged and ignored the question, heading instead for his blankets and equipment.
"Probably off watering a tree," Midas commented as he stretched.
"Or trying to solve the world's problems with only little old him to come up with solutions," Raven added. Clearly she still hadn't forgiven him for his comment four days ago. Leopold didn't say anything so the conversation turned to other things.
"How many bushels did you say that we've gathered so far?" Midas asked.
"We've been averaging about ten a day," Daniel answered. "I think that the count last night was forty-nine."
"Twenty-one more to go," Midas said. "What is that, seven apiece?"
"It's five and a quarter," Leopold spoke up immediately. He hated it when his brother was wrong and vowed for the millionth time to teach him how to do math.
"So the little man has found his voice, finally," Raven said. Leopold didn't know what it was with her and the word "little," but she sure seemed to be stuck on it.
"Enough of this bickering," Daniel said. The members of The Group had been getting on each other's nerves recently. He wasn't certain if it was the marsh air that was making them cranky, but whatever the reason, it was no way to complete this contract.
"Yeah," Midas agreed with another stretch. "Time to grab a bite to eat and then get to work."
It was half an hour before they left the camp site to search for stedillion again. This time Midas took the lead. He didn't particularly want to, but his brother had been doing it for the last five days, and it looked like he had had enough of it. Not to mention all of the other things that Leo had on his plate on the moment. Raven was the icing on the cake of the situation. After Midas' and her talk during the last contract, he had thought that her attitude toward his brother would change, but it had not at least until now. But now, instead of being nicer and more caring, it seemed like she had turned the brunt of her wrath on him. What the reason for this was, Midas couldn't fathom.
He led his comrades forward through the thick muck, holding his axe high to avoid getting it dirty. Though he claimed that he brought it in case they had to cut through trees or underbrush, he really carried it as a weapon. Though everyone else seemed to have accepted the marsh for just that, he had not. He had deemed it unwise to allude to this fact, and plodded along with the others, acting as if he was not bothered, all of the while expecting something terrible to happen at any moment. Little did he know that that moment was fast approaching.