Panicked shouting awakened her from sleep. Sitting up in her chair, she found her family and clan stood upon the bank, staring across the river to the west, shielding eyes from the afternoon sun. Smoke plumed in the direction they gazed, a roiling inky blotch upon the azure sky.
“Shedun Forest’s off that way. Naught there but trees,” she heard Myson say, the oldest of her nephews.
“Be just a forest fire then,” said her son, Patyr.
“Forest fire? Don’t be daft. The rain hammered down the day after last,” said Myson. The clan murmured.
“That smoke’s miles off. Rains probably missed it. You said yourself naught’s there. What else could it be? Stop making everyone nervous with your folly,” said Patyr, folding his arms. You fool, she thought. She loved her son, but he had water for brains. The murmurs escalated into arguing. It seemed to be the norm of late. The lack of fish in their favoured stretches of river had forced them west to far removed parts. Rumbling stomachs had worn tempers thin.
At times like these she missed her husband Dyne more than ever. For years he had steered the clan to safety all the while maintaining harmony. Her heart ached to think of him now, memories fragmented, like wisps of smoke, an incomplete jigsaw. She could no longer picture his face, but would never forget how his love made her feel: safe, happy. Being the best of friends they had known each other inside out, lived as one. She longed to see his face again but knew it would never be.
She found life hollow without him. The need to support her family kept her going, though as time went by her duties of fishing and foraging grew to be challenging, and now, at ninety years old, they were defeating. Just getting out of bed left her needing a rest.
Once a strong and capable woman, it had taken her years to accept the loss of her independence. Many times she had tried to cook and clean, to prove to her clan, as well as to herself, that she was still able. But being slow and forgetful she made mistakes and her efforts led only to scorn.
The arguing continued upon the river bank. Amidst the ruckus she heard one of her younger nephews, Jonias, shout at Patyr.
“Just like we ‘av to feed your ma?!” Patyr, face reddening, glared at Jonias. He lunged, punching him in the nose. The teenager fell to the ground, clutching his face as he rolled around, crying out in pain. It ended the arguing, seething individuals retreating to their tents and houseboats moored to the bank.
Patyr hesitated, she thought. Jonias still bore the bruises from his outburst the previous week, something which continued to burden her thoughts.
“Why should we have to feed ‘er?! We’re the ones that break our necks to find food!” Jonias had said, pointing at her in anger. The fishing that day had been poor. As the catcher of the fish, Jonias became incensed when he saw his meagre portion. “I say leave ‘er on the bank. She can’t do naught no more! It’ll do everyone a favour, even ‘erself.”
Patyr hadn’t hesitated to beat him then. To her dismay, she had since noticed a change in his attitude. He had said just a handful of words to her, and seeing his reaction today added logs to the fire of doubt. Could he be thinking of it? My own son...
She closed her eyes, letting the lapping of the river soothe her mind. The breeze that brushed her cheeks carried with it the scent of the wisteria hanging upon the trees on the opposite bank. A kingfisher zipped by as she opened them, swooping toward the lichen-smothered bridge upstream. On the western side stood miles of forest; on the eastern, a vast meadow, and further on, the civilisation the River Folk feared.
She felt her heart would break if left to die alone, even moreso if abandoned on land. Should the water not take her body and soul to the Deep Blue, she would be trapped in limbo, barred from being reunited with Dyne. And to be left by her own family… she did not wish to think of it.
Shuffling in her chair at the stern of her houseboat, she gave her throbbing backside a rub. Bristled straw innards poked through the ragged material of the cushion, its comfort replaced by niggling itches. Rarely did she move from her perch, legs and joints too stiff and sore. She sat with shoulders and back stooped, pockmarked face layered with wrinkles, hair thin and as white as bone. All but one of her teeth had fallen out, sticking from her bottom gum like a lone merlon upon a broken battlement. The younger children cowered at the sight of her, so too some of the adults—few of the River Folk lived to her age.
A magpie suddenly landed on the bulwark before her. It tilted its head, observing her with beady, charcoal eyes. She returned the stare, smiling in admiration at the grace and boldness of the monochrome bird. Footsteps sounded on the deck behind, and the bird, unnerved, broke its gaze to look.
“Nana!” The magpie beat its wings and headed off across the river. She saluted as it went. Her granddaughters, Mayble and Vella—Patyr’s children—appeared from around the cabin. An instinctive smile erupted on her face. She cherished her time spent with her granddaughters, telling tales, singing rhymes and songs and listening to their own conversations of handsome boys and gallant men.
At sixteen, Mayble stood a head taller than her younger sister of twelve years. She had hair the colour of the tobac leaf Dyne had loved to smoke so much, which flowed down to her back. Her eyes matched, contrasting with her fair, unblemished face. Vella looked similar, though freckles covered her cheeks and dainty nose, and she had her father’s eyes—a striking emerald green; their family trait.
“Who are you waving at, nana?” Mayble asked.
“I’m not waving at anyone, pet. I was saluting.”
“Saluting who?” asked Vella.
“The magpie! Seeing one on its own is bad luck. Give it a salute and it turns to good.” She winked and smiled as if revealing a guarded secret. Across the river the magpie made a sound that she had never heard before—similar to its laugh-like cackle, but slower, with an air of sadness. Its long black tail flicked up and down like a lever as it opened wide its beak and repeated its call over and over.
“I’ve never heard a magpie make that noise before,” she said.
“They’re always making funny noises,” said Mayble. “Ma says they’re all thieves. One nicked her wedding ring!”
“I’m not sure they’re all thieves, pet.”
“What do you think of the smoke, nana?” asked Vella, looking at the dispersing clouds above the trees.
“Odd. These are quiet lands. Trouble rarely brews.” Myson was right; it couldn’t be a forest fire. The experiences of her long life suggested a more probable cause. This is the doing of men. That posed another, more concerning question: who?
“Pa thinks it’s a forest fire,” said Mayble.
“I heard. It needs to be baking hot for a fire that big to start on its own. We’re only in spring,” she said.
“What else could it be?” asked Vella, concern on her face. She hesitated before answering. To tell them what she thought would only cause worry, worry that they would soon spread amongst the camp. She had seen how Patyr had reacted to Myson’s comments and could not afford to cause any trouble for herself.
“I don’t know, pet.” Someone clattered a ladle against a pan on the bank, frightening birds from perches—dinner was ready.
“Are you coming to join us, nana?” Vella asked.
“Nay, pet. I’ll keep to water.” If she stayed aboard her houseboat it would be harder for them to ditch her. She hoped.
“I’ll get you a bowl,” said Vella. The pair scampered off. Vella returned a short time later, alone.
“Here you go, nana,” she said, smiling as she passed her a steaming wooden bowl.
“Thank you, pet.” The watery brown contents didn’t look appetising, but her grumbling stomach said otherwise. Vella hopped onto the bulwark, sitting in the spot where the magpie had landed. They ate in comfortable silence, hunger consuming thoughts. Vella voraciously emptied her bowl, then turned to her grandmother.
“They’re still arguing about the smoke. Pa seems sure it’s a forest fire.”
“He’s an idiot.” Vella giggled. “What did they decide to do?”
“Naught.” Dyne would have done something. “If it’s not a forest fire, what could it be, nana? Pa said nobody lives in them parts.”
“Well, I remember an old tale my own nana told me back when I was a little lass,” she said leaning back in her creaky chair. “One night a boy named Byrt was awoken in his tent by a whistle. The whistle seemed to be calling out to him, so he left his bed and went to find what was making it. Venturing into the forest Byrt saw glowing lights, the colour like your own pretty eyes. When he neared he found the lights to be coming from a tree, and around it danced men and women. But they were no ordinary men and women. They had big, pointy ears and eyes that glowed yellow. They sang in words known by no man and danced in ways deemed insane. My nana called them protectors of the forest, watchers of the trees.”
“Do you think it could be true, nana?”
“Hmm… nobody has seen them since. Who knows?” She smiled.
They fell quiet as they watched the setting sun ignite the tower of smoke in a flame-like glow. A distant bellow suddenly shattered the tranquillity. More shouting followed—louder, clearer, coming from across the river. A man. The rest of the clan heard it too. Like rabbits sensing danger, they came to their feet, anxiously listening.
The shouts continued, sounding as if someone was barking orders. Another sound began to accompany it, a sound she’d heard before—the rumble of marching feet.
Myson’s youngest son, Fydor, ran to the bridge for a better look.
“Soldiers!” he yelled, voice breaking as he pointed across the river. The clan exploded into frantic shouting. They surrounded Patyr, the clan leader, trying to be heard over the clamour. Some demanded they pack up and flee, others argued they should hold their ground. Patyr looked like a dazed animal. It became too late to do anything.
Four riders trotted into view across the river, mounts draped in yellow and blue caparisons, identifying them as soldiers of the Kingdom of the West. They stopped before the bridge, observing the clan with a mix of surprise and disgust. Few people ventured so far west, even the nomadic River Folk, who, to those of the towns and cities, were regarded as primitives living on the fringes of civilised life. The riders conferred, then one of them turned and cantered off whence he came. The others continued to watch.
Tense minutes passed, the River Folk afraid to move. The breeze stiffened, rustling the masses of leaves on the opposite bank and sending the long grass of the meadow swaying. The thud of marching feet continued to grow in volume. She looked to the tree where the magpie had perched. It was gone, so too most of the sun.
Before long the two riders returned with another: a white-haired man upon a destrier. His navy cloak, snapping in the wind, suggested him to be of higher rank. The white-haired rider led the four across the bridge, hooves clip-clopping against stone. As they turned toward their camp, the children reacted as if struck by bolts of fear. Some ran to their mothers, hiding behind skirts, while others sought refuge in tents, hoping the hempen material would protect against war horses and blades. The men rallied to Patyr, arming themselves with fishing knives and crude spears. Myson picked up their only short bow and nocked a duck-feathered arrow.
The riders stopped around twenty feet away. The white-haired soldier dismounted.
“We mean you no harm,” he said, accent harsh, not dislike their own. “May I approach?” Patyr looked confused—rarely did the Western Army show such respect to the River Folk. He consulted with his clan mates.
“As you wish,” said the old soldier.
“That’s close enough,” said Patyr as he reached around ten feet away. A few days growth covered the old soldier’s cheeks and chin, somewhat hiding the scars etched on his face. His fatigued, blue eyes had an empathetic look.
“My name is Tyson, Field Marshal of the Western Army,” he gave a slight bow. “Please do not be alarmed. We are merely returning home, wounded and weary. We’ve been away for too long; we miss the comfort of our beds!” Tyson tried a joke to break the tension. Silence.
“What do you want?” said Patyr.
“Let me cut to the heart of it. We carry with us captives that must get to the city of Piet’alos as soon as possible.”
“Captives? Slaves more like,” said Myson. The River Folk despised the slave trade. River pirates and slavers often raided their camps to kidnap women and children to sell on the slave blocks of the Great Cities. Many of their kin ended up in Piet’alos.
“They aren’t slaves, just prisoners.”
“Well, what do you mean to do with them?” Tyson sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“What does it matter? They’re the King’s prisoners and must be taken to him. If you would like to be the ones to deliver them we will pay you handsomely. Nobody holds more knowledge of the Great River’s waterways than those of the River Folk.” He bowed once more, deeper than his first.
The clan erupted into muttering. Past experiences of deceit and betrayal had fuelled a fierce resentment of those from the cities. But opportunities to make coin did not come around often.
“’ow much?” said Patyr.
“Four hundred silvers.” That was a lot—enough to feed the clan for the rest of the year. It quelled the disquiet.
“Eight hundred,” countered Patyr. Tyson laughed.
“Deal.” Striding toward Tyson, Patyr spat on the palm of his hand and held it out for a shake to confirm the agreement. Tyson looked down at the yellowish spittle.
“I’ll take your word. How many can you carry?” Patyr looked at the four houseboats—the first time he’d glanced in her direction all day. The houseboats were around sixty feet in length and ten feet wide with deep hulls giving space in which to live and store supplies. Cabins stood at the stern of each—the communal space.
“Twenty.” Tyson frowned. “Twenty five, if we make room,” offered Patyr, looking in her direction again.
“It’ll have to do. Here’s two hundred silvers. You’ll get the rest when you arrive.” Tyson reached into his cloak and tossed him a weighty pouch of coins. Patyr grabbed and opened it like an excited child. His eyes widened at the sight of glimmering silver—never had he seen so much money.
“You leave tonight,” said Tyson, turning back to his mount.
“But we just made camp! The rivers be dangerous at night.” Tyson ignored him, riding back to the road, along which now advanced a long line of cavalry and men. A perplexed Patyr turned to the clan and instructed them to dissemble the camp.
What does Patyr mean when he said they could “make room”? Surely he will not leave me behind to fit an extra prisoner on-board? Her knuckles ached from gripping the arms of her chair. She looked to Vella, whose brows were pinched with concern.
“Worry not, pet. Everything will be fine; I promise.” She smiled at her granddaughter. “Be a good girl and help your ma and pa.” Vella forced a smile and headed to the camp.
As the packing up began, a group of ten soldiers approached, leading fifteen prisoners with sacks over their heads. Most of the captives, it seemed, were women; a few children and men too. The manacles on their wrists and ankles jingled glumly as they moved. Curiosity crept into her mind. Where have they found these captives? Then she wondered. Could old nana’s tale be true?
A broad-shouldered man with a cobalt cape and a dark, well-trimmed hair and beard stood before the soldiers.
“I’m Commander Lybald. We’re ready to leave when you are.” He had a city accent, words enunciated.
“If you don’t mind my askin’, who are these prisoners?” said Patyr, nodding in the direction of the concealed captives.
“I do mind you asking. You’re not to go near nor utter a word to them. Got it?” spat Lybald. Patyr nodded and showed him to the houseboats.
Patyr acted as if she wasn’t there as they passed her, but Lybald gave her a lingering look. She couldn’t help but shudder at the look of disdain in his eyes. Lybald returned to his men who watched the clan with amusement, ridicules loud enough for all to hear. Behind, the rearguard of the Western Army was moving out of sight beyond the meadow, the sound of marching fading too.
The day had given way to night by the time they had packed everything away. Patyr’s wife, Nansy, took Vella and Mayble below deck while Patyr led the five allocated captives and three soldiers aboard. The cabin became a temporary brig as the prisoners were locked inside. The soldiers found a spot on the deck close by. She heard Patyr hauling in the heavy iron hooks securing them to the bank and felt the boat begin to drift into the current. I will not be abandoned tonight, she thought, sighing with relief.
Navigating the Great River’s waterways at night was no mean feat. The depths of the rivers altered, giving the risk of beaching. Clusters of rocks and fallen trees masked beneath the surface could gut a hull. And they could always blunder by the camps of river pirates and slavers. But these waters were the River Folks’ home; they knew nothing better.
The tip of the biggest of the two moons—the white goliath Tibias— poked up over the trees. Flickering stars carpeted the sky. The mystical indigo phosphorescence of the Western Aurora streamed by before them all, pulsating and shimmering. Most of the time it was red, sometimes green, others blue, and on the rarest of occasions, like tonight, indigo. The sight gave her goose pimples, brought tears to her eyes. The last time she saw it Dyne had been alive. They had sat up all night laughing and sipping moonshine, gazing up at the glittering sights above, the closeness of their bodies keeping each other warm. That same warmth filled her body now and brought a smile to her lips.
The four boats sailed in tandem. Swaying lanterns at the bow revealed their locations. She heard Patyr open and close the groaning driver’s hut door on the deck. It housed the mechanism that moved and steered the barge—pedals and a wheel connected to a wooden propeller and rudder beneath her feet—a nifty device devised by the River Folk.
Laughing and joking, the soldiers acted as if in a tavern. She heard them hawking, spitting and pissing over the bulwark, ridiculing Patyr, and when Nansy returned to the deck, they whistled and called to her. “Take off your dress!”
For a while they acted like this until falling into hushed conversation. She found something sinister about their abrupt change in behaviour. I need to stay awake; make sure they’re safe. I promised Vella everything would be fine. But her eyes felt heavy, energy fleeing like water down a drain. She cursed her age as she closed her eyes for a moment, just to rest them. They did not open. The murmur of conversation grew ever more distant.
The scuff of boots against the deck stirred her from sleep. Muffled voices spoke beneath her feet. Then she heard the unmistakeable sound of a blade being drawn. What’s going on? She sat up in her chair, holding her breath, straining her ears, heart beating so hard it felt like it would burst from her chest.
A stifled scream came from below deck. Vella. Another shout followed, this time from behind her. Patyr. A man cried out in pain below.
“Rat! Come ‘ere. You’re getting it first for that.”
“No!” cried Vella. The boat rocked from the struggle, water sloshing, wood creaking. Patyr called to his daughter again, only to be silenced with a crunching punch. Too weak to even stay awake. I’ve let Vella down; I’ve let them all down. I really am useless.
Everything she had feared had come to pass. Tears ran down her cheeks as she sat listening to it unfold, wincing with every scream. Patyr should never have trusted city men. All they do is lie and cheat. Cursing his stupidity now wouldn’t change things. She knew what Dyne would do—it was how he had died, defending the ones he loved. She knew then what she must do too. I will not be useless any more.
Willing away the pain of her ageing body, she reached down to her boot and drew the fishing knife Dyne had given her when they had wed seventy years ago. She pushed herself out of her chair, discarding her many blankets, and steadied her shaky legs. Leaning against the cabin for balance, she shuffled around to the main deck. Shapes became visible in the pale light of the moon. A soldier stood with his back to her, looking down at Patyr curled up like a whimpering dog at his feet.
She could hear the soldier’s excited breathing, see the flecks of Patyr’s blood glistening on his face. Never had she harmed another person. Now she felt no hesitation. Gripping the knife as tightly as her arthritic fingers would allow, she raised it as high as she could and brought it down into the top of his back with all her might. The soldier screamed in pain and spun around, but she clung on with everything she had left. He staggered forwards, lost consciousness and tumbled overboard. She went with him.
Cold water shocked the breath from her lungs. At first she panicked, kicked her legs, trying to return to the surface. But she lacked the strength. She looked up as she drifted deeper. The moon, stars and aurora began to fade and she closed her eyes, let go of her breath. Her final thought was of her beloved Dyne. And from the darkness he emerged, sitting with a smile at the front of their boat, offering her a hand.