This lasted a few days. A half-dead merchant had been found on the road. He’d been beaten by robbers and left for dead on the road that passed near the marshes. And they stole his wares—a few barrels of wine and brandy. When he advertised a reward for the recovery of the wine, everyone looked at Hommlet’s newest heroes.
Wolfgang and co. volunteered. They did know the marshes and they had encountered humans there—what people live in marshes except brigands.
So they went to the swamp and after several hours of following its crisscrossing trails, they encountered a group of likely thieves: five scruffy, desperate men, with one-and-a-half pairs of shoes between them, armed with crude spears and bows. They were friendly, showed surprise to meet other people, and were vague about their purposes. They had killed a ducks and were looking for wood. They didn’t know anything about wine, but sure would like some. They didn’t like Wolfgang’s wolf, but did like his female associates. Their leader (the one with two intact shoes), introduced himself as Gumm and invited them to share the “hospitality of the marshes.”
Wolfgang, Phoebe, and Gerilynn agreed to share a meal with their new associates. The men did not have any wine, but they did have frogs—small, red, live amphibians carried in pouches. “Wanna lick?”
Wolfgang, Phoebe, and Gerilynn watched as the men licked their frogs’ backs, and then each accepted a squirming creature from its owner and did the same. They were hesitant, but the men were impatient, “Just lick and give it back here!” The taste was at once hot and soothing; immediately, the strain and fatigue of a long day wandering in mud and stagnant water left them. They felt some annoyance to find that, in that half-second of peaceful oblivion, the men had reclaimed that seemed to halfway belong to them. But then their head quickly cleared. They did not feel the dulling effects of wine or ale, but instead, a new sharpness.
The men seemed to experience the taste of the frogs in different ways. One plucked the duck with uncanny speed and focus. Gumm showed the same hyper-alertness that Wolfgang & co. were experiencing. Two others continued licking their frogs until they fell asleep. Another suddenly turned Gerilynn’s questions about wine back on her: “who wants to know? And what is it you are doing out here in the swamp with no other folk for miles around?”
Gerilynn apologized and everyone fell quiet. Dusk gathered. There was more talk of finding some wine. Somehow the duck got cooked, and those who were awake ate hungrily.
Hunger banished, the group revived its convivial spirit. Gerilynn’s interlocutor volunteered that they did have friends in the swamp and the friends did have wine, but they shouldn’t share. “Can we go there?”
The man hesitated.
Gumm interrupted. “It’s dark.”
It was. The heroes discussed returning to Hommlet. They disagreed about which direction it lay.
“We’ll show you,” one of the men said, “in the morning.”
Gerilynn argued, but the men said nothing. “Ok,” she agreed, “morning.”
Among themselves, Wolfgang, Gerrilynn, and Phoebe agreed that they would rest, but that that they wouldn’t fall asleep. But then one thing led to another, and one of the men offered Phoebe another lick of his frog. This time, she fell asleep. Wolfgang and Gerilynn, gave her some playful prods, and shouted her name to rouse her, and this gave the men some good laughs. Then Phoebe drifted off again; Wolfgang and Gerilynn fell asleep.
The group stated at the smoldering fire, and picked at the remains of the duck.
Maybe Gerilynn drifted off for a moment. Or maybe she got drawn into a conversation about missing wine and the inhabitants of the swamp. There was a sudden movement, a gasp. One of the men was kneeling over Phoebe. He stumbled over to Gumm and whispered something. Gumm looked at Phoebe, at companions, and at the wolf.
Gerilynn jumped over to Phoebe and shook her. She wouldn’t wake. Her body didn’t feel right. She wasn’t breathing.
Gumm stood up, and held his hands out in front of him. The other two men started putting their packs together.
“What have you done to our friend?” Wolfgang demanded.
Gerilynn started casting a spell and the men ran. Wolfgang threw a rock.
Gumm got farther than the other two, but Wolfgang’s wolf caught him by the leg and pulled him to the ground.
Gumm begged for mercy and Wolfgang called off the wolf. “You poisoned her!”
“No one tried to do nothing,” Gumm pleaded, “it’s the frogs.” As he spoke, he reflexively drew his own frog out of his pouch and alternated between licking it and pressing it to the wound on his thigh. “It’s all good and bad sometimes.”
Gerilynn and Wolfgang spared him and let him get up and wander off into the swamp. The other men who had tried to run away were unconscious. When they revived, they were also sent away. Finally, Gerilynn and Wolfgang kicked the sleepers awake and sent them away.
They sat down, and without meaning to, fell asleep, waking up in the morning cold, sore and stupid.
Back in Hommlet, no one knew much about Phoebe or where she’d come from. Wolfgang gave her last rites.