It lay beyond the southern border of the town - a stinking, boggy morass eternally shrouded in a fog so thick and pungent that it would make even the staunchest eyes water. A road, if the haphazard pathway of wood and heaps of earth could be called a road, had been partially constructed by traveling merchants who didn't want to bother with skirting around the swamp on their way to the next village, but no one in the town dared to use it. In fact, most of them refused to enter the mire at all.
For there was a legend. One that had been passed down for a hundred generations. It told of a people who lived in the swamp. No one could describe them because those who presumably encountered the group had not been seen or heard from since, but it was generally agreed that they were as big as mountain trolls and ugly as ogres. They lived in the deepest part of the swamp, a place untouched by direct sunlight. Anyone foolish or unfortunate enough to fall into their grasp would be dragged to this hopeless place and locked in a cage that was large enough to hold a grown man. Though no one was sure how this was known, it was said that the victim would be held for a single day before being butchered and eaten, and in this day they could be saved if anyone was brave enough to try and rescue them.
Many a harried parent had threatened misbehaving children with being left at the mercy of what were simply known as "the swamp people," and any time someone disappeared without explanation it was assumed that they'd been foolish enough to enter the mire and had consequently been stolen away. It was their own fault for being so hasty or reckless as to think they could traverse the bog unharmed. That's what would be said, but such words proved little comfort to the families who mourned their lost members.
Charlie Thatcher learned the harshness of this lesson the morning his family woke to find his brother, Andrew, missing. The previous week, Andrew had been discovered in a compromising position with the son of the baker, and it was assumed that he had run away to avoid the shame or a beating. The only indication that he had gone into the swamp instead of some other direction was a note he left to his former paramour who had shown it to Charlie's family. To Charlie's dismay, his parents seemed ready to accept their youngest son's fate. They shrouded the house, and themselves, in black and prepared letters to be sent to family that lived in other towns.
"But Pa," Charlie insisted, "we don't know that he's dead! He could have made it through the swamp."
"How many folks you know who've gone into that swamp and come out alive?" Charlie's father shook his head. " 'Sides, even if he did make it through, we're not likely to see him again. It's easier on your mother to believe he was taken by the swamp people. Let her grieve, Son. Let us all move on."
"Merchants travel through safely all the time. Why couldn't Andrew? And if he did get taken by the swamp people, then shouldn't we try and rescue him?"
His father's reply to that had been to clip him about the ears and, muttering about the burden of two foolish sons, send him outside to tend the family chickens. As he spread the feed over the ground, Charlie couldn't shake the growing conviction that his brother had been taken by the swamp people. When he took the morning eggs to his mother, he stealthily retrieved an empty wineskin and the fireplace flint before slipping outside again. He took a spare torch from the shed and filled his wineskin with water at the town well before heading purposefully out of town. If anyone noticed the young man entering the swamp, they didn't cry out or try to stop him.
Clouds had filled the sky that day, dampening the sun's light, and inside the pungent fog it was even more obscured. Charlie made his way forward, wiping his eyes with his sleeve when they watered, and trying to make out the path that the merchants had constructed. When the way became unclear, his boots sank into the mud, squelching loudly as he lifted each leg in a necessarily exaggerated stride. Soon he was covered in the icy, reeking muck but he pressed on.
More than once, he thought he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Each time he turned to see who was near, there was nothing. Yet the feeling of being watched never left him and he took to squinting through the mist as he walked on. How much time passed was hard for him to say, but soon the merchant's path seemed to dissolve entirely and Charlie found himself wading knee-deep through the marsh. When he could, he tried to climb out of the muck by standing on the trunks of fallen trees or the stones that were large enough to rise above the swamp water. Yet he found the wood was rotten and did not hold his weight, and the stones covered in a slick slime that sent him careening back into the mire.
So gradually that he didn't notice, the trees grew thicker. More and more rose out of the bog until Charlie had to squeeze between them. Just as he was preparing to turn back, the oppressive number of trunks lessened, and he stumbled into a marshy clearing. An almost perfect looking circle, at the center of which rose an embankment of earth. At the top of this embankment was a crudely hewn table, and beside that, the fabled cage.
It stood just as tall as described, and sitting inside - his head resting back against the bars - was…
"Andrew! Andrew, it's me!"
"Charlie?" Andrew looked up, then jumped to his feet. "What are you doing here? How'd you even know where to find me?"
"Luke came by the house this morning with your letter. What were you thinking of, running off into the swamp like this?"
Charlie sloshed through the muck until he reached the embankment, and scrambled up to where his brother stood. They both gripped the wooden bars of the cage, and Andrew hung his head.
"I was just so mad. I thought once everybody knew about us we wouldn't have to keep it a secret anymore, but he said his Pa told him it was bad for business and he didn't want to see me anymore. I thought if I left I'd show him how much...that we…" he slumped down into a sitting position again. "Oh, I don't know what I thought."
"Well, Brother, that's near about the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Charlie ran a hand through his hair, unintentionally caking it with mud. "But we can jaw over that later. Right now I gotta get you out of here so we can get back to Ma and Pa."
He shook the wooden bars, testing their strength, but Andrew shook his head.
"You can't break 'em. I've tried. And they say that's not how it's supposed to be done."
"The swamp people."
Charlie looked around them rapidly, "You mean you seen 'em?"
Andrew shook his head, "I ain't seen 'em, but I heard 'em. They snuck up behind me when I was walking and knocked me out. When I woke up in the cage, a voice came out of the trees saying that I had a day to be rescued or else they was gonna eat me."
"Well, I'm here to rescue you. How'd they say it's supposed to be done?"
"See them bottles?" Andrew pointed to the table behind them.
Charlie turned and noticed, for the first time, that there were indeed two bottles sitting on the crooked surface. Both were as big as a mug of ale. One was filled with a green liquid, the other with blue.
"There's the key at the bottom of each bottle. You have to drink the potion that's inside until you can get the key." Andrew grabbed Charlie's sleeve as he started towards the table, "Wait! One of them is poison."
"I don't know. You have to guess. If you guess right, you can unlock the cage and they'll let us go. If you don't then…"
"We both die?"
"That seems to be the the way of it."
Charlie paused, "Which one looks less like poison to you?"
Before Andrew could answer, there was a great splash and a shout that came from beyond the line of trees that Charlie had come to the clearing through. Both brothers tensed, but a moment later, Andrew relaxed when he saw the face of the figure stumbling towards them.
"Andrew!" the Baker's son was more rotund than either Charlie or Andrew, and his chest heaved with the exertion of having squeezed himself through the last thin crevasse between the tree trunks, "I...oh, hello Charlie."
"Hi, Luke. What're you doing here?"
"I came to rescue Andrew. And to tell him I'm sorry. If I'd have known you were gonna run away, I never would have listened to my Pa."
"Really, Luke? Do you mean it?"
Charlie rolled his eyes, "If you were gonna come after Andrew, why didn't you say something this morning?"
"I didn't want your parents to tell my Pa. I wasn't even sure I'd be brave enough, but I had to know if Andrew was all right."
Seeing the look in his brother's eyes, Charlie held up a hand. If they were going to get all mushy eyed again, they'd never get Andrew out of the damn cage. He explained the bottles and keys to Luke.
"But we don't know which bottle is which."
Luke stared at the table, "Wait. How would they know if we just poured the potions into the swamp? We wouldn't have to drink anything."
"WE WOULD KNOW." The words echoed like thunder, causing Luke and Charlie to jump and Andrew to cower against the base of the cage. "ALL MUST PERFORM THE RITUAL OR NONE WILL LEAVE."
"Is that the swamp people?" Luke whispered.
"Seems likely," Charlie replied. "Guess we don't got much of a choice. There's no way we could outrun them. Not in the mud." He paused, "Wait, they said we all have to perform this ritual. How are we supposed to do that?"
Luke looked at Andrew, reaching his hand through the bars to touch his face lightly. "We each drink one of the bottles - Charlie and me. Then whoever didn't drink the poison unlocks the cage."
"But that means one of you will drink poison," Andrew whimpered. "You'll die!"
"Luke's right. It's the only way to get you out."
"Then you should just leave me here!"
"Don't be a fool!" Charlie hissed. "They won't let any of us leave if we don't do somethin'. You gotta think about Ma and Pa. One of us has to go back."
In spite of Andrews continued protestations, Luke and Charlie approached the table.
"Which one d'you want?" Charlie asked, a knot forming in his stomach.
"Blue always was my favorite color." Luke's voice had grown hoarse.
"All right. I'll take green then."
Each boy reached for their bottle and pulled out the stopper. Charlie's hands shook, and he had to remind himself that this was the right thing to do, and besides that they didn't have a choice. At least this way one of Ma and Pa's sons was sure to come home that night. Luke looked as sick as he felt, but his hands were steady.
"Drink on the count of three, all right?"