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River Daughter’s Bent

by Stephen R. Sobotka, Jr.

 

 

Shaya brushed some white strands of hair behind her ear and looked through the reeds, blinking furiously against the glare of the setting sun. She fastened her eyes on the figures shaded by the cypress on the river bank, and focused her ears on their words.

“Please, tell me, Mari!”

“Oh, you lummox! As much as I love you, I can’t tell you, Paul!”

Mindful of where she placed her feet on the rocks, Shaya gripped the reeds to keep her place against the gently moving current.

“But you’ve been saying you’ve chosen a husband for weeks,” Paul persisted. He was a dark-haired youth in workman’s clothing, his heavyset frame bent with concern. “The joining festival will begin soon!”

“I know, and I’m quite aware of what they’ve said in the village,” the girl giggled, her wheat-tinted hair swishing about her face. “And, you needn’t worry so! Soon, everyone will know my choice.”

The gentle brute came closer. “But, will it be me? Please, Mari, I have to know!”

Another giggle, punctuated by a playful slap on the cheek. “Now, Paul! To tell now will spoil it for everyone, so please don’t ask again, my dear.” She made a fetching movement, swishing her lavender dress.

Shaya shook her head, just before movement in the river distracted her from the antics of the two before her. A face peeked out from the surface, shaking water away as its owner groped for footing on the muddy bottom.

“Shaya!? What are you doing? Father said--!”

“Shh! Keep it down!" Shaya indicated the two humans with a graceful nod of her head.

Eloi pulled herself up alongside her sister. Seeing the couple, she raised one eyebrow questioningly. “Who are they?”

Shaya frowned. “The miller’s son and the village master’s short daughter. They’ve been meeting here for the past year.”

Eloi grimaced at the display before them. “She’s got him gaffed! We’ve seen Tirsene act the very same way. The whole court labeled the whole thing as sheer madness on her part.”

“Keep your voice down!” Shaya warned, before turning back to watch.

“I have to return to the village now,” Mari told Paul, stepping away from him as he tried to embrace her. “And you need to get back to the mill! You don’t want others to think you spend all your time by the river, do you?”

Paul groaned. “Oh, mash! I was supposed to help the others with the chaffing today!”

Mari laughed. “See? Now run along, you! I’ll see you at the festival!” With her body trying to move all directions at once, she ambled away.

Shaya made a soft, clucking sound of sympathy, watching as the youth dropped his half-embrace and made a little wave, before he departed in the opposite direction.

“’Till the festival.’… such a day cannot come too soon for that simple wretch.” Eloi flipped a strand of ebony hair from her face and rolled her green eyes.

“Such words do not bode well. As sure as soft sand can murk moving water, she’s up to no good!”

“Well, let’s go home! Father’s been calling everyone to court!” Seeing her sister still watching the male, she tugged at Shaya’s arm. “Let’s go, Shaya!”

“All right, let’s go!” The two sisters ducked under the water, leaving not a single ripple to betray their departure. Webbing between their fingers and toes propelled them easily through the current.

Shaya’s thoughts were colored with concern for the youth. As Eloi said, the female was playing him for a fool. Humans! Why they had to employ such games with their hearts when looking for a suitable mate… Well, good thing for her she wasn’t human. From the tips of her pointed ears, to her pale, mother-of-pearl hair, to her light-green skin… ah yes!

Shaya of Andywine rejoiced that she was a nyad.

 

 

The luminescent pool of King Andywine’s Grotto was filled with laughter and happiness. All of the subjects of the River King’s people were in fine fettle for their nightly gathering.

All save one.

King Andywine watched with a father’s concern as Shaya floated listlessly amid the company of her other four sisters. Sticking out like a fish in the sky, she avoided her siblings' idle gossip, and refused to partake morsels of herd-fish from his servants. She didn’t even join in dancing with the young males of the court, just toying with her hair-fronds as she relaxed on her couch of mossy stones.

Rising from his watery throne, he called the entire court to attention. “Shaya! Come here, Daughter-Mine.”

All talking ceased as his eldest daughter rose from her couch to approach him, bowing her head meekly.

“What has you so vexed this night? Melancholy is so unwelcome on your face.”

“Father-Sire, I… I do not wish to disrupt the court to speak of my state of being.”

"It is the wish of your father that HE hears it!" His midnight-black eyes brimmed with displeasure. We’ve had a gentle springtime so far, and every night at court should be filled with gladness and good feeling. ‘Tis not a time for my eldest to be out of measure!”

“But, Father-Sire--!”

King Andywine’s tone broached no compromise. “Speak, Daughter-Mine!”

“Yes, Father-Sire,” Shaya sighed, and told him what she’d seen of miller’s son and his paramour.

Rubbing one blue-skinned chin out of several on his jaw, King Andywine’s face darkened. “A vexing matter, even for humans. We all had our fill of similar matters, when Lady Tirsene bewitched several of our young lordlings.” Murmurs of agreement came from the assembled court around them. “But I fail to see where it concerns you, Shaya?”

“Because… the human deserves more than that leech! She draws him in, her charms like the lure of a predator turtle. I fear he may feel the snap one day!”

“You sound as if you have feelings for this human, Shaya… do you?”

“No!" Shaya insisted, "but one can’t but help to feel compassion for such a being in a wretched condition. I wish I could help!”

“You know my will on that, Daughter-Mine! Not since we drove the Siren from this river have I allowed any of our folk to meddle in human affairs. She spelled doom to all humans, bedeviled by her singing. It would have made things bad for us simple river-dwellers, if we had not taken her to task!” Shifting his bulk back onto his throne, he added, “Since then, all of our people are forbidden to use the magic of the Song, no matter what the intent.”

Shaya’s tone rose. “But he must be set free of this… land-sirens’ song! Surely, we could bend the rule you placed for us, just this one time!?”

Shaking his head under the weight of his crown of cypress boughs and polished river stones, the King replied, “No! To bend a rule once means eventually it will be bent again, and again, until at last it is broken. I can understand your concern, but we cannot-and will not-intercede in human affairs.”

“But, Father--?!”

“Shaya! Leave the human to whatever fate he is to come to, and speak no more of this to me!” The King watched as Shaya wrestled with herself for several moments, but eventually, her head bowed in compliance.

“Yes, Sire…”

 

Eloi trailed Shaya, speaking while swimming, “But, you heard father last night! It is the law.”

“It’s not FAIR! And that does not make it right!”

As the two wove among the thick, sunken trunks of an underwater forest, Eloi complained, “You always swim faster when you’re upset!”

Shaya eased her pace. “I’m just so… angry! Something terrible will happen to that human unless I can help him!”

“But, what can you do? Father decreed--.”

“Father can land himself for all I care!” Shaya stopped and turned to her sister. “This is just as bad as the Siren, for all this one walks on dry ground!”

“You’ll never convince father and the others of that.”

“I don’t wish to convince them,” Shaya grumbled. “I just want to prevent a travesty from happening!” She swatted at a passing carp, making it scurry for the shallows. “I have to find a way to help him! Even if it means going against father’s law!”

Eloi blanched. “B-But, you’ll be punished if you do!”

“Any punishment will be a small pain, compared to the agony that human will go through when that leech is through!” Idly swishing her hands, she propelled herself forward, making Eloi follow her. “Whatever I do, it must be secret. Word reaches Father, and he could stop me before I start!”

“But what will you do?”

“I’m not sure… I suppose, if I did it while everyone else is asleep, I could use the Song to bring him down here.”

Eloi squeaked with fear. “What?!? You do that, and you’ll kill him for sure! You’ll be no better than the Siren!”

“Oh, murk! I wouldn’t kill him! We could… well, find a cave in one of the lesser-traveled branches of the river! Yes!” Swimming faster, Shaya continued, “We’ll find one that has plenty of air in it, but one he couldn’t get out of without our help. Then, we could drive fish into it so he could have plenty to eat…”

“But, Shaya! You can’t keep a human in a cave, like some water-beetle in a bubble!”

Shayda pulled up short, jerking her sister up to glower into her eyes. “And, who says that I can’t?”

“Me,” a gravely voice burbled.

Both sisters nearly burst to the surface in fright.

“Me,” the voice repeated softly, bubbling up from a thick mat of high, river grass. A hunched-over figure emerged from the fronds. It was a shaggy-faced male nyad, dressed in a clout and a mantle of cockles. He stared distastefully at the two nyads from glassy eyes resting just above a storklike, pointed nose.

“Who are you?” Eloi asked.

“Especially since you’re speaking to the daughters of the River King,” Shaya added.

The male nyad scowled, leaving the grass to float before them. A lumpy sack banged at his hip, possibly full of rocks and used shells. “Name’s Paddlefoot. An’ I don’t answer to no King.”

Eloi stared in shock. “You’re that old hermit! The one father banished from court years ago!”

Paddlefoot nodded.

Shaya was too mad to be shocked. “Why couldn’t I… do what I said?”

The hermit looked from one sister to the other. “Follow me.” Kicking away like a rheumy frog, he paddled away, leaving the two sisters to look at each other..

“Do we dare?”

“Perhaps not… but, I…oh! Come on!”

They flickered after him, heading into the river-forest while the deeper water filtered the sun shining overhead, turning the depths an eerie green. Out of the gloom, a large pike seemed to snarl at them, before disappearing into the murk, hunting smaller fry. Eventually, the hermit stopped before what looked like a cave entrance.

Paddlefoot slipped to his knees in the silt. “Here. This be the reason why, Riverdaughter.”

Shaya cast a baleful look around, noticing the small cairn of stones. “What is this place?”

“The place where my heart’s only love is buried. Because I loved, I was banished by your father, for takin’ her away from her home an’ all.”

“Why would our father banish you for loving another?” Eloi asked.

The hermit looked pointedly at Shaya.

“I think, because…?”

“She was human, Riverdaughter!” Anger seemed to make Paddlefoot grow twice his size, cowing the two sisters as he rose in a cloud of mud. “I was bewitched! As a young lad, I used to go out at nights, lazin’ on th’ surface! An’ there she was! A-tendin’ her flock by th’ river banks, playin’ a river-reed she made able to sing. It mattered not to me she was human, for I was smittin’ from th’ first note played!” He glared, mad from memory. “For weeks I pondered what course to take, an’ so, when the Court slept, I the Song to bring her down, to this very cave!

“At first, she was angry, sad, hurt, even hostile towards me! I had no reason to harm her! But what did she know?!? But, like a cruel child keeps water bugs like shiny stones, I cajoled. I courted! Brought her food and pretties!” A knurled hand brought up a fistful of shiny cockles, tossing them away. “She did start to love me at last, but… but…”

“What happened to her?”

Paddlefoot folded on himself, his rage swept away by sadness. “She caught a chill, when the winter all but froze the water solid around us… and I could not reach her in time. I clawed my way through bitter ice for nearly a day,” he said, holding up his hands, emphasizing the scarred, twisted fingers. “By the time I broke through, she was too far gone with a heat I could not cure,” he moaned.

Shaya looked at Paddlefoot, understanding. “She died.”

The hoary head nodded slowly to the eldest sister. “Humans have no place in our world, Riverdaughter,” he tiredly advised. “Leave them where they are, and be much better for it in the end.”

 

Shaya visited the riverside mill alone, long after everyone, especially her father, was asleep.

Swimming close to the mill, while deftly avoiding the huge, wooden wheel that drove the human’s machines for them, she spied a small window several feet above the waterline.

Surging up from the river bottom, she grasped and clung to the wooden wall with her fingers, supporting her rarely-felt mass. She started to climb, taking care not to be heard by the occupants within and hoping that her breathing wouldn't alert them. Her arms ached by the time her head came level with the window sill.

Taking a moment to secure a solid grip, she listened over the creak and groans of the wheels.

“Oh, leave him alone!” The miller's stern words cut over the sound of the pulse rushing in Shaya’s ears.

“I don’t understand why he did it, Garth." The woman's voice was pitched high in anger. “He just embarrassed us before the entire village!”

“The boy was only following his heart!”

“Phah!” Something metal clanged, as if kicked. “If he’d kept his mind on work, instead of flitting off to the river to dream his days away in the sun, he wouldn’t have made a fool of himself trying to wrest that girl away from the one she really loved!”

“The boy is growing up. It’s high time he started thinking about having a family of his own!”

“So he should pick the fairest high-born in all of Houselden!? Mari Scarletson was promised to Olan Kincaid’s son two summers back! That dumb ox we call our son never stood a chance.”

“Lyssa!” A loud, wooden thump echoed from within. “The boy has enough to muddle over!”

“Well, he’d better muddle this!” Lyssa muttered as her footsteps rattled against floorboards. “You listen good, boy!" she called more loudly. "Get over this! We’ve got a lot of grain to work, so be ready come first light, or I’ll know the reason why!”

Another volley of heavier steps were followed by the slam of a door. Before Shaya could move, the shutters to the window flew open, and the flushed, pinched face of a woman emerged.

“Paul!? Paul! Where are you going?!”

Shaya became as still as a reed frog, and the only answer to the woman’s shouts were the retreating footsteps along the riverbank.

“Come back here at once, boy! I’m not finished with you!”

“Lyssa, ENOUGH! Get your rear end in here and just let him be!”

The woman looked over her shoulder, scowling through a fan of russet hair. “But that boy--!”

“Will have to work things out for himself! Give him peace, please! Once he’s had some time to himself, he’ll come back.”

The woman pulled herself back inside, closing the shutters firmly.

Shaya waited until the humans started talking again before she moved. Pushing away from the mill, returned to the river with a quiet splash and sped towards the human’s place beside the river.

 

 

A fresh footprint in the mud told of his passing, but Paul was nowhere to be seen.

“He must be headed down river! But, why? He’s come here so often!” While trying to reason the workings of a human mind, she went with the current, her head and shoulders above the surface. None of her people would dare to attempt such a risky, exposed swim. If anyone spied her, she’d be hunted down and captured, either for fear of what they didn’t understand, or out of horror because of what the Siren had done, long ago.

She came to a merging, where the Sister River joined with this one and made the current swifter and stronger. She checked the shallow banks and found another set of footprints, half-washed in the silt and pointing up the Sister River.

“Now what?!? Has he gone mad!?” Shaya wondered if she herself had taken a mad turning. Her people rarely ventured this way, and she never had in all of her  years.

But, shoring her resolve, she plunged forward. Soon, she found herself swimming through large formations of rock. Sister River was a young river, by the way her people reckoned a river’s age, and it ground its passing into the bones of the earth. Around every boulder, she expected the current to smash her back, but she managed to fight it.

She passed the rough water and came to a place where the water was partially gentle. Surfacing, she blinked rapidly, searching. But it was her ears, not her eyes, that guided her the rest of the way to Paul; his sobs echoed with a volume that spoke of a cave, or something enclosed…

“Where have you brought me, human?!” she wondered. She pressed on, clawing her way through the shallows to avoid the tiring current. Pushing aside reeds and other water plants carefully and quietly, she made her way to the mouth of a large, oval pool surrounded by tall, black cliffs. A waterfall arced down, its sound nearly deafening. So much so, she almost didn’t hear another sound all together:

“Damn her… Damn her…”

Shaya whirled, looking around so fast she nearly missed him, as his long frame was balled up against one of the huge rocks at the edge of the pool. She darted behind another rock in the water, peeking around the edge to keep him in sight. Relief slid through her, which quickly turned to pity, as he looked more wretched than before.

“What do I do now that I’ve found him?” she asked herself, as the original dilemma returned to her.

“What do I do now?” Paul blubbered, not realizing someone was listening to him and wondering that very thing. “Why? I loved her! She had no right choosing him!”

“That female’s done greater harm to him than good, as I feared!” She shook her head. "I hate how these humans seem to always harm one another.

“Damn her! Damn them all for laughing at me! I can never find someone for my own. Not now! not after this!” Rolling onto his hands and knees, Paul punched the ground savagely. “Not that it matters any more!”

Shaya whispered, “It should matter! You don’t deserve to be so miserable!”

Paul grimly looked upwards, not hearing. “Well, they all can have one last laugh at me! It’s the very last one. After tonight, I’ll not be hearing laughter any more!”

Shaya’s exasperation melted into fear; fear of the tone in his voice. Unable to do more, she watched him as he clambered to his feet and set off doggedly towards the cliffs. He stumbled and collapsed against wet rocks, heaving deep breaths before he glanced up at the heights. Then, reaching up with one hand to tug at a crack in the face several times, he began pulling himself upwards.

“No… dear mercy, NO!” Shaya suddenly understood the human’s intent. He was going to throw himself from the cliffs to certain death! “He cannot die here! They might think his death unnatural!” For a moment, panic as thick as hard river mud gripped Shaya’s heart.

A third of the way up, Paul lost his grip and nearly slid back down. He held fast nonetheless, and quickly resumed his climb.

“It cannot be allowed to happen,” Shaya told herself, getting her fear under control with a sudden calmness. She rose halfway from the shallows, her will fixed on the suicidal human. With no further thought, she began to sing:

“You need not cast your life away… like some old and broken stone.  Come ‘ere at once and turn away! Return, you must to your own home!”

The sound of her voice was suggestion, nudging where a Siren’s willed, and coaxing where the other bludgeoned. Weaving an eerie ascending chord, it wrapped itself around the human above before stretching forth into his mind. At once, Shaya was beset with memories not her own; of the weeks of dreaming of Mari’s angelic, teasing face, her laughter, and her promises unfulfilled.

Paul wavered. The Song linked her mind to his. Every hope he had, she knew. Every feeling, she held trapped in her own heart like a struggling fish.

With a violent suddenness, she stopped the Song, and the link was broken. Singer and unwilling listener both reeled from the brief contact.

The human shook himself and resumed his climb, now halfway up the cliff, while the nyad fell back under the surface with a splash.

“Oh, murk! I can’t make it work if his mind is too closed up!" Recovering herself amid a cloud of silt, she surfaced, gazing helplessly as he scaled higher. She formed the words once more, but now the chord would not even penetrate the barriers of pain.

At a loss, Shaya’s mind grabbed at ideas like plucking loose reeds from the river. Suddenly, one thought came to her like a last ray of moonlight. She rose over the waters again. This time she would not to sing to Paul. Using more of the Song than she dared before, she sent the chord out into the wood at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, weaving through the trees and beyond.

“A heart is dashed upon the stones… and body soon becomes shattered bones. If you be human, kind with grace… come save this one, blood of your race.”

Pouring her entire will into the magic, she expanded it outward.

…seeking, looking…

Paul worked an arm over the edge of the cliffs, finally reaching the top. Rolling onto his back, the human paused, recovering breath and strength.

…desperation, searching…

A faint, raucous sound cut across the Song, coming from the trees.

Breaking off, Shaya flopped into the water, making for her hiding place in the rocks before daring to peek out. She hoped her singing hadn’t called up a wild animal instead. Movement in the brush preceded more noise…

A shaggy, gray mongrel erupted out on the shale. It barked twice, its nose pointed toward the heights.

Shaya looked with a puzzled face. This is what the Song brought to save him?

“Culler! What in Grace’s Name did you come here for!? We have to get back to those sheep!” A string of jovial curses came after it, which made the dog bark loudly again. A taller, two-legged form in homespun emerged from the brush, slapping branches out the way.

Shaya didn’t breathe, watching as the shepherdess stamped into view. She wasn’t small-made, and certainly not as bewitchingly beautiful as that other human female. With broad shoulders, and limbs that were more suited to a man, she had a bosom of a mother, and the kindly face of a matron.

The dog looked to his mistress, barking three times before pointing his nose at the cliffs again.

“You dumb beast!” The woman spoke with affection, bending down to slap its flank. “I send you out to recover lost lambs, and you bring me to this… Coo, ducks! This is a sight to see!” she added, seeing the pool, its rocks, and the waterfall.

The dog barked earnestly, prancing on her toes to get her attention.

“What? What’s stirrin’ you, Culler?” She finally laid her eyes on the figure at the top of the falls. “Oh, Great Maker! Hoi! Up there! Are you daft, man? How in Grace’s Name did you get up there?!?”

Paul didn’t answer. He gathered himself, and flung his body over the edge.

Shaya turned in time to see his exodus. “Oh, MURK!”

“Maker… NO!”

Both shepherdess and nyad watched as he sailed down like a child’s discarded doll, smacking through the surface of the pool and sinking like a lump of lead.

The woman paid no heed to herself as she dashed for the pool, nearly tripping over the dog before diving in. Strong strokes got her to the center of the water, where she dived for the sunken body and hauled it by one arm to the surface. On the shale, Culler barked encouragement. She got into the shallows, and hauled Paul onto the rocks with a strength borne of tossing sheep into a pen. Pausing to shake some of the wetness from her, she then rolled him onto his back, groping at his thick neck for a heart beat.

“You better not be dead, fella, or I’m going to have words with you when I see you in the Hereafter.” A hand came around, slapping Paul’s slack cheek. “Come on, you bloody fool!” Another. “Time to wake up!”

On the third slap, Paul sucked in a breath, and retched it out, rolling onto his side to heave onto the stones. Culler stepped back with a whine.

“Good, get it out of you,” the shepherdess nodded, looking on with concern now. “Easy, yes… don’t be loosin’ your liver over it.” With gentler hands, she rolled Paul back over, taking his head in her lap. “Hoi, can you hear me? Are your brains doxied? I wouldn’t doubt they weren’t already, throwin’ yourself from a cliff like that!”

Still behind her rock, Shaya watched as Paul got his breath back, coughing the last of the water from his lungs.

After a moment, he looked up at the woman holding him blearily. “A-Are… y-you… a-a-an a-angel?”

With a wry smile, the shepherdess shook her head. “Nay, young fella. I’m as mortal as you. And I hope you got some sense knocked into you after doin’ a fool thing like that.”

Paul scowled, turning his eyes away from her. “I… I-I want to die…”

“Not while I’m around, my fine fella! Here! Culler! Go to Davey! Fetch that day-dreamin’ brother of mine! Go to Davey! Git!”

Culler wuffed once, before taking to his heels, charging back into the brush.

The shepherdess looked to Paul. “When my brother gets here, we’ll get you back to our camp and get you fixed up. Then you can tell us where you live… hey, now!” She pulled him back down as he tried to rise. “Don’t move, you! I don’t know what hurts you’ve done to yourself, but you’ll do worse if you don’t lie still. Now, you listen to Kenna, ‘cause Kenna -- that’s me -- knows what’s best!" She pulled Paul near and tried to warm him with her own body. “Now, listen to me. We’ll get you warmed up, and get some medicine in you to keep out the chill. Then, when you’re strong enough we’ll see about getting you back to your home.”

“B-But… why?”

Kenna smiled gently. “Why, ‘twould be a shame for a fine fella like you to just throw your life away. Besides… no one deserves to die alone, like you would have done if I hadn’t happened along.”

A ripple among the rocks was the only thing marking the departure of Paul’s unseen benefactor.

 

 

Coming to where Sister River met the other one, Shaya wasn’t totally surprised to see several of her people gathered there, her father King Andywine at their head and Eloi at his side.

Sighing, she swam forward to meet her consequences in the rush.

“Shaya!” Her father's eyes burned with anger. “We heard the Song! Did you use it on that… that human of yours?!?”

“Yes, I did,” Shaya replied, her gaze never wavering from behind her pale hair-fronds. “And, I am willing to accept my punishment for breaching your decree, my King…”

 

 

The End

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