Following Revanth, the three meet Stout Jack, a man whose mother, wife and daughters have all been claimed by the river. Velda assures him they aren’t dead, but naiads.
They traveled several miles below the rapids before Velda handed her pack to Alton. With a kiss, she stepped into the water, calling out a greeting. The waves and ripples circled her, chattering happily. One last smile at Alton, and she dove in.
“We’ll continue on foot,” Alton said, gazing at the sky. “We have another hour or two before it gets too dark for you to see.”
“Can you see in the dark?”
He smiled. “Day or night, light or darkness, I see the same.”
“What else can you do?”
“Many things. You’d think me bragging if I told you all.”
“How old are you?” she asked unexpectedly.
“Far older than I look. I was a full grown man before you were born. In fact, before your parents were born.”
“How long have you and Velda been together?”
“That’s a long time to be without your family,” she mused.
“It is. Though we have one another.”
“Is that enough? Revanth and I have one another, but sometimes—I still long for my family.”
Alton nodded, holding a tree branch out of her way. “I miss mine every day.”
“Even your father?”
His green eyes darted over his shoulder and he grew tense, as if listening.
“What makes you think there’s anything between me and my father?”
She laughed lightly, shaking her head. “Because fathers and sons often fight, especially when the son chooses a woman his father doesn’t approve of. It was he threw you out, wasn’t it? Cut you off?”
“Yes,” was his terse reply.
“He can’t live forever, Alton. One day, you can go back and claim your own.”
“I don’t understand. Why not?”
“It’s complicated.” He stopped walking. “The ways of my people aren’t for you to understand, or not. I can’t go back—ever. I gave up my inheritance, for Velda.”
“Why? There are other women in the world, Alton.”
“There are no others like Velda,” he murmured. “Could you give up Revanth? Or would you turn your back on all you’ve ever known, to be with him.” He paused. “Oh, wait! You already did that!”
Astrid nodded, a tear escaped her eye, trickling down her cheek. “You needn’t be so mean.”
Alton stopped, turning toward her. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “I don’t intend to be mean, child. For ten years, I’ve been cut off from my family and home. Yes, I am with the woman I love—”
“But if you had the choice to make again?”
“I might not make the same one,” he replied softly. “I love her more than my own life, but sometimes I feel as if a part of me died that day.” He cast about for a moment, then set his pack on a nearby rock. “This looks as good a place as any to stop for the night. I’ll gather firewood. You call for Velda. Just dip your fingers in the water, and call out to her with your mind.”
Astrid nodded. She set her pack down beside Alton’s, and walked to the riverbank nearby. She dipped her fingers in the calm, cool water, letting her thoughts drift. There was a splash and tinkle of laughter. Moments later, Velda swam up to the bank, her blue eyes glittering happily. Her dark hair flowed around her like water.
“Hello, Astrid. I met some of my cousins here. We’ve had a lovely day.”
Velda slithered onto the bank. Her dress clung to her legs in a silvery, glittering garment that looked like the lower end of a fish. Moments later, Astrid was sure she had imagined the entire thing until Velda shook her hem and Astrid saw her feet. They were fins! Startled, she gasped and backed away. The naiad giggled.
“What did you think, my dear? That I swim like you by kicking my limbs?” She shook her hair free, the water scattering around her like diamonds. “Lower body of a fish in the water. Lower limbs of a human on land.”
Astrid nodded, wide eyed. “I never thought about it. Until I met you, naiads were mythical creatures.”
“Like wood sprites, dryads and elves?” Velda asked with a laugh.
“Yes. I never met anyone like you and Alton before.”
“And I never met a man enchanted into horse form,” Velda replied. “Let’s see what Alton has for dinner. I’m starved! Then I’ll tell you what I found out about Revanth.”
They hurried back to camp. Alton had a fire blazing, surrounded by rocks. It was built in the center of the circle of trees, in a shallow depression that looked like it had, had fires in it before. Alton smiled when Velda approached. Taking her in his arms, he kissed her.
“I’ve missed you. Sit. Eat.” He handed around a bowl of fruit, followed by mellow cheese and other treats.
The women ate greedily, as Velda told them what she had found.
“You must have sensed that they passed this way,” Velda said to Alton.
“Yes. Many hours ago. It wasn’t a fun passage for any of them.”
“Is he all right?” Astrid asked.
“One of them beat him,” Alton replied. “But his companion reminded him that he’s worth more money if he’s not got marks upon him. They are gentler now, but not by much. The one who beat him said that if he got too problematic, he’d kill him, and have done. Revanth is quieter now.”
© 2019 Dellani Oakes
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