"Damn," muttered Hurwood when the voice stopped. "It doesn't know that right now."
Shandy saw Friend shrug. "We can wait for a while."
"We'll wait until it knows, and has told me," said Hurwood firmly.
"Who's this it?" asked Blackbeard.
"The ... personality we were questioning," said Hurwood, "though the pronoun 'who' overstates the case." He sighed, apparently at the hopelessness of trying to explain, but then his professorial reflexes seemed to take over. "Newton's laws of mechanics are entirely useful in describing the world we know - for every action there's an equal but opposite reaction, and a uniformly moving object will continue to move uniformly unless acted upon by some force - but if you get very particular about very small-scale events, if you deal with them in such specific, needlessly obsessive detail as to almost qualify you for a lunatic asylum ... you find that Newton's mechanical description of reality is only mostly correct. In tiny extents of space or time there's an element of indecisiveness, postponement of definition, and you can catch truth as loose as an underdone egg. In our normal world this isn't a big factor because the ... odds, I guess you'd say ... are pretty consistent from place to place, and overwhelmingly strong in favor of Newton. But here they're not consistent. They're polarized here, though the overall net values are the same. There is no elasticity in this ground, no uncertainty, and so there's a lot out here in the air. What we were questioning was a ... tendency toward personality; the likelihood of an awareness."
Blackbeard snorted. "What language was that, that likelihoods speak?"
"The oldest one," said Hurwood imperturbably.
"Is that," Shandy found himself asking, "why the thing is so hard to locate?"
"Yes," said Hurwood, "and don't try. It isn't any where - where is as inappropriate to this phenomenon as who. If you watch for it you're watching for a what, at some particular where and when - and on that basis you may find many things, but you won't find. He finished the sentence with a vague wave and a fading whistle.
For at least a full minute they all stood there shivering in that cold dark valley, while Hurwood patiently called some unintelligible phrase over and over again. Shandy looked around to see how Beth was enduring, but Hurwood sharply told him to keep his gaze steady.
Finally Blackbeard said, "This delay wasn't part of our bargain."
"Fine," said Hurwood. He sent his strange sentence out once again; and then he added, to Blackbeard, "Go, if you like. Good luck getting back to the jungle."
Blackbeard swore, but stayed where he was. "Your ghost-thing is looking something up for you, hey?"
"No. It will eventually manifest itself again, but it won't be the same personality as before; though at the same time it won't be a different personality either. 'Same' and 'different' are far too specific. And it won't have learned what I want to know. It will simply happen to know it this time. Or, if not this time, it will know it some time. It's like waiting for two or twelve to come up in a game of dice."
More time went by, and finally one of Hurwood's patient calls was answered. Beth's father conversed with the unlocated voice for another minute or so, and then Shandy heard him plodding heavily across the mud.
"You can all look anywhere you please now," Hurwood said.
Shandy watched Hurwood, and he wasn't reassured to see the narrowed eyes and the hardened jaw-muscles of the ex-Oxford don.
"Leo," Hurwood said tensely, "hold Elizabeth."
Friend was wheezingly happy to obey. Beth still seemed to be in a stunned daze, though Shandy noticed that she was breathing very rapidly now.
Hurwood reached down and untied the wooden box from his belt; he loosened the wooden lid with his teeth and shook it off. Shandy couldn't see what was inside. Then Hurwood shuffled over to Beth and held it, open end up, under her right hand.
"Cut her hand, Leo," the old man said.
Shandy started forward, but long before he could get there Friend reached down with his hairpin and, his lips wet and his eyes half-closed, drove the pin into Beth Hurwood's thumb.
It brought her out of her daze. She jumped and looked down at her punctured hand, and then looked past it into the box her father was holding, into which the quick drops of her blood were falling - and she shrieked and lunged away, scrambling on all fours up the muddy slope.
Shandy took off after her and caught her a few yards up, and he put his arm around her heaving shoulders and shook her gently. "It's over now, Beth," he gasped. "Your hand's cut but we're alive and I think we're headed back now. The worst is - "
"It's my mother's head!" Beth screamed. "He's got my mother's head in that box!"
Shandy couldn't help looking back in horror. Hurwood was sitting down in the mud to slide the wooden lid back onto the box, an expression of almost imbecilic satisfaction lighting up his old face, while Friend just looked hungrily at Beth, his hands still raised in the position they'd been in when he was holding her - but Davies, and even Blackbeard, were staring at the one-armed man with astonishment and loathing.
Hurwood struggled to his feet. "Back," he said. "Back to the sea." He was so tensely cheerful now that he seemed to be having difficulty in speaking.
They all scrambled wearily back up the slope, and when the ground leveled out Shandy put his arm around Beth again and walked with her, though she didn't acknowledge his presence with even a glance.
The bridge was gone. Hurwood led them forward along a rutted dirt road between fields of heather under a rain-threatening sky; mountains rose in the distance, and when Shandy looked back he saw a cluster of old, almost entirely windowless stone buildings behind a wall - a monastery, perhaps, or a convent - and when he peered more closely he saw that a slim, long-haired figure was standing at the wall's top, over the closed gate.
He was unable to elicit any response from the young woman plodding lifelessly along at his side, but, still looking back, he raised his free hand in a wave, and the figure on the wall waved back at him - gratefully, he thought.
Hurwood and Friend led them back to the plain of dark sand, where they retrieved the still-hot boots and knives, and then the two sorcerors again used the lamp with the slotted hood to find their way back to the burning torch Hurwood had left stuck upright in the sand, and then they were back in the normal world. The black Florida jungle looked comfortingly mundane now to Shandy, and he savored the swamp smells like a man brought back to the aromatic meadows of his youth.
After he had helped Davies and the empty-eyed Bonnett get all the torches lit and push the boats back into deeper water and turn them around, he took Beth's arm and led her over the marshy, shifting ground toward the boat he and Davies had occupied on the way into the swamp. "You ride with us on the way back," he said firmly.
Hurwood heard him and responded passionately, but for a couple of seconds all that came out of his mouth were random, infantile vowel sounds. He became aware of it, closed his eyes in concentration, and then began again. "She - will stay - with - me," he told Shandy.
Hurwood's insistence alarmed Shandy, for he thought he had figured out Hurwood's plan, but now it seemed there was more involved than he'd guessed. "Why?" he asked carefully. "You've no further use for her now."
"Wrong, boy," Hurwood choked. "Just - what're the words? - cocked it, here. Fire it come Yule - Christmas. Margaret stays with ... I mean ... her ... the girl stays with me in the meantime."
"R-right," put in Friend, his protruding lower lip shiny. "W-w-we'll t-take c-c-c - " He gave up trying to speak, and merely jerked his head back toward the boat Bonnett was already sitting in.
Suddenly it occurred to Shandy what Hurwood's plan might be - and as soon as he thought of it he had to know if he was right. He had no qualms about upsetting Hurwood, and Beth seemed at best minimally aware of her surroundings, so he held his hot knife up near Beth's throat, covering most of the hilt with his hand to keep Hurwood from seeing that it was the blunt side of the blade that was toward her.
The triumphant expression on Hurwood's face was instantly replaced with one of absolute horror. He fell to his knees in one of the oily pools, and then he and Friend both gobbled wordlessly at Shandy.
Shandy, his fears confirmed, grinned at the gibbering pair. "Then it's settled." Walking carefully backward through the spongy bog, keeping his eyes on them and his knife near Beth's throat, he escorted her to the boat where the puzzled Davies waited.
Hurwood turned to Blackbeard and hooted imploringly.
Blackbeard had been watching this torchlit drama with narrowed eyes, and now he slowly shook his head. "Our deal is done," he said. "I won't interfere."
Shandy and the nearly catatonic Beth Hurwood clambered into the boat and Davies pushed away from the mud bank. Shandy sheathed his knife.
Bonnett proved unable to do anything more complicated than row straight ahead, so it was Leo Friend whose ample fundament flexed their boat's center thwart, and whose chubby, uncallused hands gingerly took the oar handles. Hurwood was hunched on the stern thwart, facing him, his face lowered into the palm of his single hand and his shoulders rising and falling as he breathed deeply.
Blackbeard poled his own boat ahead of the other two and then looked back at them, and with the torch right behind his shaggy head he reminded Shandy of a total eclipse of the sun. "I don't suppose," Blackbeard remarked, "that my boatman is going to reappear."
Hurwood lifted his head and, though it took some scowling effort, he was able to reply. "No. No more than ... your ghosts will. As long as we ... keep the torches lit ... and the herb burning, all of them ... stay here."
"Then I hope I can remember the way out," said Blackbeard.
Friend blinked over his shoulder at the pirate-king in alarm. "What? But you came up the river. All you've got to do is retrace the course you took."
Davies laughed. "You did remember to leave a trail of bread crumbs, didn't you, Thatch?"
"Naw," said Blackbeard disgustedly, pulling ahead, "but if we get lost we can just ask directions at the first goddamn inn we come to."
Slowly the three boats moved forward, their orangely flickering bow-torches the only points of light in the humid blackness. The white fungus heads along the banks were silent now, except for an intermittent exhalation that flapped their lips. Shandy wondered if they were snoring.
After a few minutes the channel they were following broadened out, and normal rowing became possible, and Shandy, crouched once more on the bow, sat down more comfortably, for he no longer had to be ready to lean out and push off encroaching banks and roots.
Then all at once he was aware of murderous anger, and at first he thought it was his own; he glared back at the boat behind his, but Hurwood just looked exhausted and unhappy, and Friend was whimpering softly with each torturing pull on the oars, and he realized that the rage he was aware of was a different sort from his own. His own was usually sudden and hotly choking and strongly flavored with terror, but this was soured and habitual and mean, and it emanated from a mind far too self-centered ever to entertain terror.
Blackbeard had snatched up his torch and was on his feet. "It's our friend the Este Fasta again," he called quietly. "Come back to roar at us again, and wave more bushes in our faces."
The jungle presence seemed to hear him, for Shandy now detected a note of bitter humor in the psychic miasma of rage. He felt the thing think, bushes.
Shandy could feel it bending down attentively over the boats - the air was oppressive, and his lungs had to strain to draw breath.
Numbly he fumbled a handful of the herb out of the pouch and tossed it onto the torch flame, and a stinking gout of smoke boiled upward through the thickened air to impact against the vines and moss overhead.
He could feel the thing's sudden agony, but this time there was no scream and retreat. The jungle spirit was sustaining damage but was not going to back off.
The air and water - the whole jungle - began to change. "Keep ... moving!" came a choked cry from Hurwood. "Get ... out from under!"
"Oh, good luck," rasped Davies bitterly, nevertheless hauling desperately on the oars.
The water was shaking like a jelly now, and the air was steamy and full of wet bits of vegetation that were evidently being shaken out of the trees. The structure of the boat seemed to be changing under Shandy, becoming more flexible, and when he glanced down at the floorboards he saw that they were untrimmed branches, sprouting gleaming green leaves. They were moving, growing as he watched - he could feel them heaving under his boots. There was a clump of wet waterweed on his bared forearm; when he tried to brush it off it clung by one end, and, when he grabbed the free end and pulled, he saw that he was simply pulling more of it out of a hole in his arm, and he could feel the internal tug of it all the way up to his shoulder. He let go instantly, and then saw the tiny green shoots that were poking out painfully from under his fingernails. He looked back at Davies; the back of the pirate's head was a mass of flowers, and his hat was being pushed askew by new ones opening up as Shandy watched. In Davies' shadow he could see Beth heaving in the grip of the vegetative metamorphosis, but he shuddered and looked beyond her, toward the third boat.
"Throw him ... someone," howled Hurwood as green stalks began unrolling up out of his throat.
"Bonnett," croaked Friend. His fat hands were now just elbow-lumps in the tree trunks that extended from his shoulders, through the oarlocks, and out sideways into the water. "Give the thing Bonnett."