by Richie Billing
Panicked shouting awakened her from sleep. Sitting up in her chair,
she found her family and clan standing upon the bank, staring west
across the river, 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 favored 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.
Life she found was 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 riverbank. 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.
He hesitated. 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 meager portion. "I say leave 'er on the
bank. She can't do naught no more! It'll do everyone a favor, even
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 beyond, the civilization the River
She felt her heart would break if left to die alone, even more so 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. Her pockmarked face
was 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
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 color 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 appetizing,
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 color
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
tranquility. 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 clamor. 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 civilized 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 warhorses and
blades. The men rallied to Patyr, arming themselves with fishing knives
and crude spears. Myson picked up their only short bow and knocked a
The riders stopped around twenty feet away. The white-haired soldier dismounted.
"We mean you no harm," he said, accent harsh, not unlike 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
"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
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
The tip of the bigger 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
behavior. 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 unmistakable 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
"Rat! Come 'ere. You're getting it first for that."
"No!" cried Vella. The boat rocked from the struggle, water
sloshing, and 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.
The 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.
© 2017 Richie Billing
Bio: The likes of Feist, Martin, Sanderson and Lovecraft have
inspired Mr. Billing to pick up the pen and craft his own tales. He
gave up his job as a lawyer to focus those efforts. https://richiebilling.wordpress.com/
E-mail: Richie Billing
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