In pursuit of Revanth and his kidnappers, the three companions come across a home by the river. The man who lives there claims that his wife and daughters have all committed suicide by drowning themselves in the river.
Velda took the bow from the man’s trembling hands. Alton touched the furrowed brow. The man’s face softened, the terror gone. He didn’t fall asleep like Astrid, but his pain and fear left him. Alton took his crossbow from Velda, disengaging the firing mechanism.
“It’s taken nearly all my kin.”
“The women,” Velda specified.
He nodded. “My father, sons and brothers have seen our women die—carried off and drowned. This river is a curse—but it’s our home. And the one place we feel close to our women. My mother left when I was young. My wife let the river take her right after our daughter was born. My sisters followed shortly after. Then my daughter, on the eve of her sixteenth birthday, wandered in the water and drowned.”
“No. She let the river claim its own. What color was your daughter’s hair?”
“So light it was almost pure white. Like the froth of the whitecaps.” He pointed to the water.
“And your wife?”
“So black it shown blue in the sunlight.”
“And your sisters and mother?”
“A mixture of the two. Why?”
“They are naiads,” Velda replied. “Spirits of the water. This is a place of growth. The naiads are all women,” she explained. “They need to add to their numbers from time to time….”
“But he says he has sons,” Alton interjected.
“The boys are human. The girls are naiads. It’s the only way we can add to our ranks.”
“So what’s happening to our women?” the man begged. “Where have my wife, daughter, sisters, and mother gone?”
“They are part of the river,” Velda explained. “The reason you feel them is that they are here with you.”
“Why did they leave us?”
“It isn’t our way to stay long in one place. Like the river, we roam. The water calls us back. If we’re forced by the life we choose, and the men we love, to live on land, eventually, we go mad. We have to be part of the water. To live by her birthplace, and never return, would be torture.” Velda gazed enviously at the water. A look of pure longing passed over her face.
Alton took her hand, twining his fingers with hers. “That would never happen to us. Unlike humans, my people understand the need to be near what you love.”
“But we can’t go home,” she whispered. “I can never go back to my birthplace.”
“Then we make a home somewhere else—together.” He squeezed her fingers. “But until we find our friend, that can’t happen.”
“I’d completely forgotten Revanth,” Velda admitted sadly. “Tell me, sir. Did you see two men and a black horse?”
The man cleared his throat, the glimmer of a tear in his eyes. “I did. They were in a hurry. They had a skiff tied up at, what’s left of, my dock. The horse wouldn’t board. He bucked and fought so, I thought they would beat it to death. The skiff came loose on its own, and was crushed on the rocks. The men and horse headed downstream to find the ford. There is no bridge or ford in these parts.”
“Remind me to thank my sisters,” Velda said with a smile. “They helped slow them down. Sir, when we have found our friend, we’ll return and I’ll put things right here. In the meantime, do you have any boat sturdy enough for my friends?”
“In this water?” He looked skeptical.
“The lady Astrid can’t travel well….” Alton began.
“Excuse me,” Astrid interrupted. “The lady can. My home is in woods much like these. I’ve grown up hunting and hiking. I’m no wood sprite, but I venture to say I won’t hold you back by much.”
Alton examined Astrid with a critical eye. Despite her slight form and slender build, he saw a lithe, athletic body. “Lose the armor,” he commanded. “And we’ll see.”
Astrid dug deep in her pack, removing the black armor from it wistfully. “It was a gift from Revanth.”
“We’ll keep it here, my lady,” the man said. “When you return, you can claim it.”
“Thank you.” She kissed his cheek. “I don’t know your name.”
“Jack Swiftwater—but folks around here call me Stout Jack.”
“Thank you, Stout Jack. I am Astrid, first daughter of King Hels and Queen Sarai of Folds Court. And my friends are—”
“Velda of Flowing River and Alton of Lyndon Meade,” Alton supplied when she faltered.
The men clasped hands. Stout Jack whistled when he heard where they were from. “You’re a long ways from home, sir.”
“We are, indeed. But our friend is in the clutches of evil men. We must go.”
“They’ve a half day’s start, at least, upon you. You’ll never catch them up.”
“They have an unhappy stallion with them,” Alton replied. “Revanth will not go quietly. We’ll catch them.”
They took their leave, walking along the riverbank.
“As a naiad, can’t you dive in and swim?” Astrid asked.
“I will,” Velda responded. “But further downstream. The water here is angry, bitter. Too many naiads have been keeping secrets. If they had told their mates who they were, this wouldn’t have happened. But somewhere along the way, tradition of keeping themselves a secret came to be—and with it, madness.”
© 2019 Dellani Oakes
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