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Monday, 10 May 2021

The Hagfish

Estimated read time: 12 minutes

    The waves don't lap. There is no movement. The sea is dead. The water is haunted.

     The songs of whales and a thousand dead voices were the girl's only company beneath the waves. She was young when it happened, a wee merbairn, and the memories she carried from that hazy time didn't make very much sense. But, young as she was, she didn't try to understand their shapes, shadows or colours, and instead she grew, played and thrived as any other merbairn would have, making do with the whale calves, the shoals, the turtles and the kelp in the absence of anyone else, and wove her young magic into the currents to better their games. She was adored and cared for by every creature in the sea, and none more so than the elder whales. When they knocked and drummed their warnings, they were as much for her as for each other, and they dove as one into the depths while the long, sleek shadows cut rigidly across the waves far above.
     But as much as they loved her, she learned quickly that she was different. The calves weren't as small or as agile, they ate more than she did, and they didn't have to carry a drum to communicate. They also slept more than she did, which often left her alone in the cold, quiet dark of the sea, with voices and memories that she knew in her heart were not really her own. It was in those lonely moments that she would lift the small box that hung around her neck, open up its lid, and peer inside at the never-ending darkness with a curiosity that hurt her soul. And when the voices inside began to sing, she would bang the small drum at her side in tandem, and her own voice would lift with them, the most bleak and heartbroken of them all. Because it was then, with the music box open in the palm of her webbed hand, that those tangled memories started to take on some kind of shape.
     But the darkness never held her for long. An elder would always soon appear, drawn by the solemn call of her drum, and gently nudge her stumpy horns before luring her away to brighter waters with a playful jet of bubbles. Then, the calves would wake, and the wonderful games would distract her all over again.

     Over the years, the merbairn grew into a kind and cheerful young maiden, with fins and a tail of deep-ocean indigo, horns that rivalled the sea dragons', and a beauty that outshone the moon. She'd also become an agile hunter, a fast thinker, and her magic could spin hordes of the whales' shrimp into a feeding whirlpool.
     But a compulsion had grown with her. She still followed the whales' commands when the shadows cut through the surface, she still braided the kelp and teased the calves with her spells, she still played in the elders' jets of bubbles. But the voices in her music box had begun to speak to her in the quiet, even when the lid was closed. Not even her dreams were an escape. And when they grew too loud, she lifted the lid despite herself, and her voice rose with their keening song while her heart sank only deeper.
     And so it was that on one warm spring day, when the box was open in her hand and those shadows passed overhead, trailing their great nets and streaming their colours through the dry azure far above, all reason fled her. The whales dove, they drummed their call, but she wouldn't hear them. With a sharp flick of her tail and an understanding that lay out of her reach, she abandoned her kelp-tangled home and darted after those colossal shadows instead.
     Miles she swam, until her fins were ragged, her heart pulsed in her throat, and the voices fell strangely silent. Here, at the sudden edge of the sea, the shadows numbered in the dozens. The water, too, had changed, its life diminished, and the taste of something familiar yet forgotten laced the funnelling current.
     But it wasn't that which consumed her attention, nor the huge, impossibly smooth and straight-sided rock interrupting the waves that turned her blood cold, nor the nets of fish being dragged out of the water that stoked her horror.
     As if snared on a hook themselves, her black eyes followed the slow, downward drift of the glittering fish scales as they sank to settle among the broken corals, shattered stone, and strange, smooth, grinning rocks.
     The moment her gaze touched them, the voices erupted inside the box, and the shapes, shadows and colours crashed into place.
     Water rushed from her gills.

     A sea teeming with fish, whales, seals and gannets.
     People like herself, and people with two rigid fins, smiling and trading through the water, exchanging silks and metals and fish.
     The people like her guiding those long, sleek shadows safely around reefs, saving the homes inside them.
     Her people leaving the waters, swimming through a narrow inlet to a greater, warmer place, to return home later by tradition.
     Smiles fade when the Mer return, with more twin-finned people trading for fish. Concern among the Mer, they can't keep up with their needs.
     Nets full of fish, many shadows, no smiles between Mer and Landfolk.
     Reefs destroyed, homes lost to careless clumsy shadows.
     The Mer migrate again, reluctantly.
     They return to more growth of Landfolk.
     Scowls and mistrust, Mer in seclusion, Mer in fear. Would their world last much longer? Would it still stand after the next migration?
     Talk along the currents: perhaps, this time, they wouldn't return at all.
     They gather. They leave.
     Landfolk waiting at the straits. The Mer taken by surprise.
     Harpoons. Blood. Pain.
     The Mer's magic was too late.
     All dead, or fled. None would ever return to the Kazimiri Sea.

     But one had been left behind.

     Her body shook. Her fins tremored. Her fists and jaw clenched. Her fury threatened to boil the water around her as she stared, unblinking, at those many skulls. But the voices still shrieked. And they had grown; voices she'd never heard before chimed now through the clamour. Voices that had never spoken - or voices that had never been with her to begin with.
     And more voices from above.
     Her black, seething eyes flashed towards the surface, where shapes and shadows darted around, and she watched them, impotent, while they multiplied. A tell-tale click; instinct lurched her to the side as a harpoon cut through the water.
     A wretched roar tore just as readily from her throat, throbbing through the straits, just as another harpoon broke through, and another, and another. None hit her; she was far too fast. But she didn't wait for them to get a lucky shot. Her magic whipped the water up into a clumsy spout and scattered the gathering figures. She fled in the chaos. Fury carried her away.
     Her muscles shook as she swam, her jaw knotted, her sharp teeth were grit. Her black eyes stared ahead, blinded and stained by hatred.
     Her compulsion was satisfied; she had her answers, and she had her memories - and others'. The Mer were the Keepers of Memory. Of time, truth and understanding. Of heart and story. Of forgiveness and repair. Of grudges and vengeance.
     Her future was decided for her in that moment. And she would bide her time over years to achieve it.

     A thick mist hung over the water as the fishermen hauled in their nets, and low hearts only sank deeper at the sight of them. The catches were failing, and superstitions were already being muttered on the wind: old tales, old mistakes, and old fortunes being repaid. Not everyone believed it; 'a turn in the currents', or 'a shift in the wind.' "All will be well next season."
     But it was not these who suffered the correction. Nor was it the superstitious who suffered their imagination. The strike was as real and indiscriminate as the waves.
     Every soul on board heard the knock and drum of gray whales while the sea fell eerily still. Every eye watched the fog dissipate and a fine rain fall upwards. Every hand gripped the rails while they watched the kelp twist and spin far below, as if in the grip of a rising maelstrom.
     And every heart froze at the black eyes set in a beautifully fearsome face staring back at them from the centre, while the crying song of a charnel choir spiked and trembled the water.
     Fear crashed over them like a wave. Orders were barked, the harpoons were manned, the sails unfurled, and every free hand was put to the oars. But not one soul survived the crushing descent of the boat. And no stories or warnings returned for the rest.
     When the ship failed to return, the superstitions grew; tales of kraken, of whale gods, of serpents and drowned spirits circulated while more ships set out, only to vanish to those unnatural clutches. It took time before they learned and finally sailed out in groups of three. The carnage didn't stop, but at least now there were witnesses, all baring matching stories of whale song summoning a multi-headed guardian, at whose hands the sea came to life, and from whose many mouths sang a saline lullaby of death.
     Hungrier than they were fearful, the people gathered, they organised, and they set out in search of the drumming of whales to lay their cunning traps.

     The mermaid found and destroyed the clumsy traps with ease, tripping them without a catch and freeing whatever wasn't so lucky, right beneath the ships' very hulls. With water itself as her cloak, she was as good as invisible; it perfectly hid the long, flowing drape of her midnight-blue tail and mane, the moonlight shine of her skin, and the strong, black, curling horns that crowned her regal head. And when she let herself be seen, with the music box about her neck, drum on her hip, corset of bones and string of jaws along her waist, the open mouths of her own crying people, she was a vision of terror.
     But that vision wasn't enough. She continued to hunt the Landfolk, she continued to follow in their shadows as they moved, blind in their own arrogance. And the sea became violent. Before long, death tainted the water. For every ship she destroyed, more creatures were killed in response - anything that could have been her. As she hunted through the reefs, she found squid and octopus dismembered and discarded. Tracking through open water, she found jellyfish harpooned or tangled. Recovering in the shallows, she found sharks and dolphins gutted. And in the sanctuary of the kelp-tangled waters she'd grown up in, while her people lay dead leagues away, she found the whales who had adopted her floating belly-up, mouths agape, and the currents deathly silent.
     The sound of blood rushing furiously through her veins granted only a thin trickle of mercy, and rage rose fast enough to obliterate paralysis.
     The water thickened around her, it tremored and boiled, then compressed and twisted in her wake as she spun from the massacre and sped like a wretched harpoon through the water, while a cataclysmic bellow tore from her fair mouth, and every voice of memory in her care roared along with her.

     The people gathered in silence along the coast, staring out to the horizon. The screaming - they'd each heard it, or heard of it, but never within range of the shore. Looks were exchanged, between fishermen and wives, apprentices and merchants. Then came the drumming. The knock and bellow of whales. But they'd killed all the whales, just like their fathers had killed all the Mer. It couldn't be...
     The docks burst to life, and panic spread to the town. All scrambled for nets, leapt onto ships and loaded the harpoons, reached for their spears. Then a call rose up: "a swell in the water!" and all wide eyes tore back out to sea.
     The bulge was surging towards them. The ships rocked with the draw of the water, and the shore shrank away from the coast. Harpoons were turned and aimed; knuckles over spears turned white. Lumps formed in throats. They readied themselves, even as they watched the wave rise higher than the highest mast, and stop against its own momentum.
     They stared aghast into that waiting wall of water, watching mindlessly while kelp like a hundred tentacles shook and knotted inside it, enchanted by fear as the giant, fish-tailed woman of black and white, surrounded by bones and a tempest of dark hair, howled and bellowed with every spirit lost to the sea, each crying out in their own pain and blame.
     And they wept as the edge of their senses returned, and the hagfish smiled a sharp-toothed grin, one twisted by rage, heartache and madness.
     The people could do nothing but stare and sob as she spread her arms and crashed the sea upon them.

     The waves don't lap. There is no movement. The sea is dead. The water is haunted, by distant rain over open water, the knocks of gray whales, and the songs of a thousand dead voices. 

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Monday, 19 April 2021

Drown In Sorrow

 This short story is a collaboration piece with MischiArt

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes


      Long, withered fingers closed slowly around the decrepit battle standard. With a deathly tug, it was dragged it down into the bog. The surface barely rippled as it vanished.

     There, down below, in the deep murk of the dead, stagnant water, six inhuman pupils contracted over the stained and ragged banner. The fabric shifted lifelessly in her blighted grip, and those fingers traced the broad, branching tree emblem stitched in rotten thread with unearthly care.
     Then, her touch hesitated.
     Rain pattered steadily over the water surface above. M'lok sank deeper.
     Her chest felt heavy as she stared at the decaying weave. Something was moving beneath her ribs, through fluid, through algae, through reanimated bone - something that shouldn't have touched her in the safety of her waters, yet seized her all the tighter for it: her muscles stiffened, a pit yawned open in her gut, and a chill ran over her torn and withered skin. And above it all, bleak shadows formed and flickered in her mind, dredged up from somewhere long since drowned and severed. And she found she had no power to stop it.
     M'lok clutched the banner tight enough to tear it, while her triple-irised eyes burned into that emblem with strength enough to set it alight. Something intense screamed inside her, commanding her to shred it, to throw it away, to spare herself the noxious confusion that choked her heart. But her fingers wouldn't open.
     The colours, the shapes...every lost banner, every shred of humanity discarded at the edge of her bog had power. Power enough to boil her blood, tighten her jaw and grit her teeth. To make her lip tremble and her body curl up like shrivelled moss. And, once in a while, to make her feel so small, aching and desperate that she wished she could vanish entirely for lack of any clue of how to make it stop. Never once had she understood why. And never once had those shapes given her the strength to find out.
     Again, she willed her fingers to open and discard the banner. And again, they ignored her.
     In a ragged heartbeat, she wrapped it around herself with the others instead.
     The longing passed rapidly, and anger oozed into its place. She welcomed it. It was easier to handle.
     She cast a festering look around herself, and watched the bog seethe with her; snakes and larvae wriggled through the mire and brushed over her skin, the rain above swelled the waters and spread her reach, and she could see the grey tail of a great crocodile on the nearest bank: Gortythe sitting ever-watchful in the drizzle. She could feel every tendril of life, just as they could feel hers. The turtles, the frogs, the eels; the leeches, the nymphs, the mosquitoes; the flytraps, the fungi, the moss...everything was connected, and she connected to it.
     And so the nervous footsteps of the trespasser in the eastern reaches shuddered its way through all life in the bog in seconds to tremble in her waters.
     A smile skittered across her face, and that brief desperation sparked once again into something irrational and blistering. She wouldn't wait. This time, she would hunt.
     The water clung to her as she rose, slowly sliding over her skin as she broke the surface without a sound. The earth shifted just as silently beneath her feet, moving with her stride. And the white, ghostly fungal mass of drooping lion's mane clinging to a misshapen log in the centre of the water pointed a long, crooked arm to the east.
     Gortythe turned and ambled forwards, and M'lok's tongueless snarl gripped her once-beautiful face.
     They would regret ignoring the old warnings.
     They would drown in her sorrows.

     Mischi makes wonderful illustrations, and is creating equally wonderful and immensely evocative colouring books, Contested Canvas, featuring battle maidens fighting one another for their place among the Battleborne. There are two available - Recruitment, and Adversaries - with a third, Battle Aria, on the way. Follow her on twitter and on Patreon, and find her colouring books and individual colouring page downloads on Etsy!
Character and concept by MischiArt, words by Kim Wedlock.
No part of this may be reproduced without both of our written permission.
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock  

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Locks and Boxes

Estimated read time: 11 minutes
     "You know what She'll do if She catches--"
     "She won't catch us, Arta." Medea muttered a curse and steadied herself against a bookshelf as the library tilted to one side. She glanced out through the window on reflex, but it was impossible to get any bearings. The shifting, purple-wisped world outside could've been flowing in either direction, if anything was even moving at all.
     She sighed and turned back to the arcane library while Arta anxiously wrung her hands behind her. The room was poorly-lit, which, Medea noted with a purse to her lips, made no sense at all, and what little light there was was caught and scattered by a thousand jangling keys swinging across the wall beside her. They offered nothing at all but confusion - and the smell didn't help. It was the sweet, subtle, tantalising smell of a promise she didn't want fulfilled; belladonna, monkshood, hemlock, mandrake, and other plants so poisonous they could probably kill in a glance, all hung dried across a rail or sat in pots, growing bitterly in the dark.
     She swallowed slowly while her fingers traced absently down her throat.
     With a moment of effort, she shook it off, strode decisively towards the far wall, the coarse disciple's robe shifting about her legs, and began rummaging through the shelves, drawers and clutter. The owner would probably have said there was a method in the madness, but she couldn't see it for the life of her.
     A small, nervous noise behind snatched her attention briefly over her shoulder. "You don't need to be here, Arta."
     "It's a bit late for that now," she said tightly, pulling her wide eyes onto her from the door. "Just exactly what is it you're looking for? You know what She'll do--"
     "She won't catch us," Medea repeated, turning back to her frenzied search. "And I'm looking for a key."
     "...Have you looked behind you?"
     She shook her tanned head as she caught a toppling candlestick and stood it haphazardly back on the desk. "It's none of those. It's in a box."
     "A box?"
     "Yes, a box." She ignored the empty candlestick as it fell again. "Small, about the size of a book, red, with the thing etched onto it, that thing, the round thing--"
     "The strophalos?!" Arta hissed; Medea winced. "What are you--"
     "Shh! Stop panicking! Either leave or help me look!" She didn't glance back to watch Arta's indecision. She continued shoving, lifting and tossing things aside while the younger disciple hesitated behind her, until she heard her tut, mutter, then move up alongside to rummage through the neighbouring cabinet.
     For the thousand keys adorning that back wall, Medea knew hers wasn't among them. Not one of those was a key of consequence - nor indeed were any of them the Key of Consequence. But that one was a prize for another time.
     Whatever the case, nothing so important would be left so easily accessible, if such a term could be used in this strange, ever-moving place; they'd all be locked away themselves, behind even more complex systems. But she had a means of breaking through this one. She'd researched it. She'd experimented. And, if all else failed, she had allies. She just needed the box.
     ''Just need the box'. As if it's that easy... Ugh. One step at a time, lass. One step at a time.'
     She hadn't thought this through as well as she'd have liked, and she was big enough to admit that; just what she'd do once she'd gotten into Tartarus and found what she was after, she still wasn't sure. But she would work it out. She had to. Because, for all the necessity driving her - and never mind what the others might say - even she wasn't unaware of the danger.
     The thought of what the goddess of boundaries, ghosts and witchcraft really would do if She caught her sent a shiver over her skin and a numb dread through her muscles.
     She steeled herself and moved along to another cabinet. But she couldn't help sending the nervous, rummaging girl beside her a brief glance. She really shouldn't have stayed. In fact, she should probably make her leave...
     But: four eyes were better than two.
     Medea shrugged it off, then a lurch in her stomach told her the library had sped up along the ethereal tracks.
     "It's not like you to get travel-sick," Arta said as Medea heaved.
     She waved her away while she fought to settle herself, and steadied against the wood with another weary curse as the library tilted again. "I wish She'd stop this bloody thing once in a while," she muttered.
     "What was that?"
     "Nothing at all." Medea dug her way through boxes and trinkets into the dark of the unnaturally deep cabinet, where the smell of  musk tickled her nose and sent a spinning jolt through precisely one third of her head. She recoiled immediately, then squealed in disorientated fright as a polecat leapt out from the black. She narrowed her eyes at it as it bounced and squeaked its little war dance around her knees, until she batted the angry little menace aside. It soon scurried away to find somewhere else to sleep - and undoubtedly somewhere else she'd end up disturbing it.
     "That was unlike Gale," Arta frowned. "She usually loves you."
     "She must be coming into heat," Medea grunted through the curl of her lip, then returned her attention to the search. Between the two of them, they'd be done all the sooner.
     For a library, there was an awful lot of junk. Tomes lined the walls, certainly - and, in some cases, constructed the cabinets themselves - and inkstained leaves were scattered over most surfaces. But beyond the books, the keys and the plants were seashells of glistening turquoise and deepest black, skrimshaw bones, and shards of black glass that looked remarkably like fragments of brain. There were skeins of hair, dried animal feet, small vials of life fluids; there were golden things, platinum things and one or two tools made from whole pieces of opal. And there were other, stranger things she couldn't place the use of: rods, rings, wires, tongs and calipers, some imbued with so much power that they physically hummed when her hand passed near. And, of course, there were boxes: green ones, black ones, oak; some bare of carvings and others absolutely overrun with them.
     But not one of them was red, and not one bore the strophalos.
     With every failing moment, Medea's patience thinned. She barely managed to bite back the foetid curse when the library lurched again and cast her forehead into the edge of the concealed cupboard she'd moved on to. Books rained down on her head.
     "We're slowing down..." Arta turned wide eyes onto her. "Medea--"
     "I know; keep looking." She grit her teeth and ignored the throb in her skull, but despite the panic clawing its way up her own back, she didn't slow down. Even when the latent magic of the place tugged and shifted around her, and the mind-bending, lung-bursting traps she'd thought she'd muffled her presence against began at last to react.
     She managed to keep her heart behind her ribs and warded against them as subtly as she could. A brief glance towards Arta revealed she hadn't noticed. She was still searching shoulder-deep in a bejewelled chest with an expression torn between terror and determination.
     Medea didn't let herself breathe her relief. And, as it turned out, she'd have had no chance to finish even if she'd started.
     A presence spun her towards the door at the back, the movement startling a squeak out of Arta, just as the handle turned and a dog-headed figure burst in. His eyes were wild, jowls lifted, bone-crushing teeth bared and two savage-looking daggers in his hands. But he didn't attack, and Medea didn't move.
     "Disciples," he rumbled as ferocity passed to surprise in his eyes. "What are you doing in here?"
     Medea spun quickly back to the library and resumed her rummaging. "There was a thief," she replied hurriedly. "Overrode the traps, somehow, and vanished through the wall." She turned a brief look over her shoulder. "Go! Catch them! Quickly! Or it'll be all of our heads! Or worse!"
     He'd already started through for the wall she'd nodded towards. "What did they take?!"
     "I don't know! But it's best we get it back before She finds out! Go, we'll tidy up in here - hopefully She won't notice..."
     The dog-headed guardian ran, shimmered, and passed through the wall and on into the next wandering room.
     "What are you doing?!" Arta hissed from close beside her.
     "If you want to call him back and tell him the truth, be my guest." She cast her a look as the girl bit her lip, then shortly disregarded her. But the moment she reached to move aside the inexplicable stone-cut ladel, a charge and flash of light leapt from it and hit her hand away. And while she cursed and attempted to disarm this next trap, the sand and shale amphora beside it picked itself up and shifted away. She blinked at it. Then watched the smoking blackwood bell beside it equally skitter out of her reach.
     In that moment, the entire cabinet seemed to come to life.
     The bitter curse broke through her lips this time, and she watched in a panic as the contents scrambled blindly over one another and the dreadful thought coalesced like a thundercloud in her mind: what if she'd already come past it, and it had already run away from her?
     She cursed again, draining the blood from Arta's face with her imagination. Then, as if she'd spoken some obscure magic word, she spotted it: the book-sized, red, wooden box with the labyrinthine strophalos engraved on the lid, running mindlessly into the corner over and over and over again.
     She wasted no moment to think on her luck; she snatched for it and all but glued her fingers to the grain with her grip. Just as the magic around them changed again.
     This time, for one long, chilling moment, she had no control at all over her response. Terror gripped her tightly and wiped her mind clean. It was chance alone that she noticed the change in her skin: all colour and plump of life vanished, leaving her arm thin, grey and familiar.
     The spell was wearing off.
     She quickly tugged her sleeve down and pulled the box from the cabinet, wrapping it up in her robes. But when she turned towards Arta to tell her to flee, she found the girl staring at her in confusion instead.
     "Medea, your skin, your eyes, you're--"
     She watched Arta's expression slacken slowly in understanding, her gaze drop from her own pure-white eyes to her grey, almost inhuman face, then to the bony arms that shielded the box and prepared, if they had to, to weave another spell.
     "You're not Medea..."
     She had no chance to reply. The library screeched and tilted over the rails as it sped up through the realm again, and the baying of nearby hounds froze the both of them in place. Then, slowly, a red cast bled its way into the room.
     "No..." Arta trembled where she stood. "No, no, no..."
     Hekate was coming.
     The unmasked realm-walker cursed again and forced life back into her body. She had no choice. Arta shouldn't have been there. She should've made an excuse, sent the girl away. But she hadn't. Because she'd grown fond of her over the last week. And for that, the girl would pay. And it was her fault.
     No. She had no choice at all.
     The door flew open with a breath-snatching burst of wind. Thunder cracked, lightning flashed, leaves swirled in and every sentient item fell from its shelf and crawled forwards as if called by its master.
     The realm-walker clenched her small teeth, snatched Arta's wrist, and the pair vanished with the box before Hekate could step inside through the storm of fury incarnate.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Ardeyn's Shine

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
     Ardeyn cocked his head while a frown flickered over his brow.
     The tiny light glowed back at him.
     A curious hum lilted in his throat. Carefully, he raised the sheet of bark to eye-level, watching the silver speck hover and pulse just above the map like a firefly, and ever so slowly crept his hand in above it. But it didn't shrink away. He teased his fingers through it as it flickered, and his teal eyes narrowed with the purse of his lips.
     He tipped the map sharply. It still didn't move. Then he shook it, but aside from loosening a few flakes of lichen, nothing else happened. The light hung devotedly over the bark, just above the long, winding etching of the river.
     A curious smile wandered over Ardeyn's face.
     With a satisfied twitch of his ears, the faun rose to his hooves, held the map open in front of him, and meandered off through the black of the night's trees, soft earth squelching beneath his steps and the damp, green, pattering smell of the forest tickling his nose. He wove among the dense tangle of trunks, past the foxfire and fireflies, beneath the ancient arcing roots, between the moss-covered rocks and through the draping curtains of ivy and tanglers, until the forest suddenly broke open and the thick air eased. Only feet from the edge did the sound of trundling water lace through the night.
     But he didn't sigh and throw himself down on the soft, grassy banks like he usually would. Instead, he crept closer to the edge of the black, tranquil water, his doe eyes widening at the spot that was simply impossible to miss: a single silver glow hanging below the jet-black surface, right where the light said it would be.
     His long, red braid trailed through the lazy current as he knelt over the edge, his orcein-painted reflection peering back at him, and he watched it glimmer and shine. Slowly, his fingers slipped through the water, but this light didn't flee, either. Then, they closed around it.
     His heart sang with the sudden pulse, hum and flicker of its warmth, and he pulled it out and cradled it against his chest.
     "What a marvellous thing," he murmured, "but you are not mine to keep. You wanted rescuing, and I have rescued you." He turned, then, and carried it a safe ways back from the bank, where he scooped a hole in the soil and planted it. "Be one with the earth again."
     Then he wandered off with a smile on his face, following the smell of rain.

     The glow Ardeyn buried soon sprouted, and when he wandered by again, following the trail of a sparrow, he found the thin, wispy reed towering twice his height, with drops of pure silver glinting from the tips of its sparse leaves. And when his curious hand reached out towards them, they dropped willingly into his palm.
     His wide eyes drifted back to the river, ears twitching, eyebrows shifting crooked, and he hummed a question to himself. Slowly, he wandered to the edge and dropped one of the silvers in. It broke the surface with the faintest plop, sank to the bed, and glowed all the brighter. And when the others in his hand tinkled with delight, he smiled and scattered them out in a wide arc to join it. The water shone with the tiny lights, glittering like diamonds in the flow, and Ardeyn breathed a marvelling little sigh.
     He stepped back to the plant before he moved along, and peered down at its tapered leaves. There were already more drops glinting at their stem.
     "What a marvellous thing..." And he trotted off after the sparrow.

     Ardeyn returned to the river many times as he matured, and the reed sprawled and branched in tandem. Every few months, he collected and scattered the drops along the water, and the night soon shone with flecks of silver. It wasn't long before others came to notice its brilliance, and they charmed Ecine's eye in particular, a woman so beautiful that Ardeyn felt his heart flutter high enough to escape with the butterflies every time he saw her.
     But for all his desperation, he couldn't find the words to speak to her.
     So he embraced another method instead.
     He visited the stem and gathered its drops more often after that. But rather than scatter them as freely as he used to, for the waters were already perfectly speckled, he arranged them into pictures beneath the surface; tales and stories written in light to capture her heart. And they worked a wonder.
     The dimensions of his art grew with the passing of the seasons, and glowed brighter with the depth of their love. And the day she agreed to join with him, he ran joyously along the riverbank, trailing them in a great, long, dusty streak beside him. The sun shone even brighter on his life.
     But the clouds soon rolled in.
     Ecine fell ill some years later, and he consumed himself with finding a cure. He asked the birds, the foxes, the trees, the rocks, but nothing worked. And when she passed into peace, the stories and images Ardeyn had so meticulously created for her crumbled to a halt. He became listless, wandering his sylvan charge blindly instead, and the forests, the rivers, the stones and the sky wept as he mourned in a cloud.
     But the power with which he tried to forget, to shield his heart and wall his mind, seeped into the world around him. And it rose with the summer heat.
     The sky and the river conspired; one night, the lights in the water shone back from the black expanse above, illuminating the world with his love for her. And when Ardeyn looked up into that mirror from his lonely riverbank, he smiled for the first time in a year. A single tear fell and stirred the twinkling waters.
     The lights have shone every night ever since.

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Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock