Chapter One: The Skeleton Forest
The haft of the spear was smooth and sure in his hand. Jeru let his fingers work over the seasoned wood, taking his mind off the hot, dry earth scorching his feet and the hot, blazing sun scorching his head. A line of skeleton trees guarded the horizon, providing his only compass on the barren landscape. Somewhere behind him lay the farm and the village, both as lifeless as the trees before him. Even the Great River, life-source of his forefathers, had shriveled to a damp brown strip of mud below the banks.
Jeru had carried some of that mud with him when he left his hut in the star-glow of the early morning. When the sun hung low in the east, he had sucked the last of his water-stores dry, and now the taste had soured in his mouth from mud to sand. He was too parched to sweat in the heat of midday.
No water, no food-stores, and nothing but dead crops and dying livestock in the village behind.
He had never been so near to the skeleton forest. No villager had. But tales of death and eternal wandering mean little to a doomed man. Jeru marched toward the forbidden horizon with purpose in his stride. He was hunting for the river.
In days past, the skeleton trees had lived and flourished, fed by a mighty torrent as wide as the reach of the Sun. Stories were told, too, that a forest still existed beyond the dead wood, where this ancient river still ran beneath the blooming canopy. Of course, these tales were centuries old, details haggled over by the old women of the village; Jeru had sat on many a knee and listened, fist in his mouth, as the storyteller used the flames of the fire to throw gruesome shadows on the ground, crying with an eerie voice to imitate the sound of lost souls trapped within the wood. It was a poor rope to cast to a drowning man, but Jeru had no other hope to grasp.
Drowning man, he thought. Ha, ha
As he drew nearer, the skeleton trees began to loom tall enough to pierce the sky with their bony fingers. They seemed to huddle together in bunches, roots barely clinging to the cracked ground. Jeru leaned in past the first pale trunk and searched for any sign of life. A stale, hot breeze swept by him and rattled the dead branches, echoing down the wood for an eternity.
Jeru gripped his spear until the knuckles of his hand stood out. If there was life down there, it was deep within.
His hand waved a farewell to the landscape behind, and he drove himself into the bone-white world ahead. Dying here, or dying there; what did it matter? A few miles in, and his own skeleton would be added to the graveyard.
The spear served as a walking stick to lever him up and over the twisted roots, and the open savannah quickly disappeared, shut out by the pale bones of giants.
Jeru had nearly crested his tenth mile when he had to rest. The trunk of the nearest tree cradled him as he slid down to the dusty earth, turning his face away from the sun for a while and closing his eyes. His tongue was too swollen to speak, so he could count himself glad that he was alone.
I won’t have any farewell words, he thought. Ah, well.
He knew in his bones that he wouldn’t be able to get up again. Every throb of his heart felt like the wingbeat of an injured bird, slowly losing strength as the lifeblood flowed out.
Then, he heard it.
The tiny voice of a living thing, singing in the forest of the dead; birdsong trilling from above.
Jeru opened his eyes. Three years had passed since he last heard birdsong, before the river had begun to die and the drought seized the land. His eyes scanned the tree branches, hungry for a sight of the singer. A flash of speckled white and brown appeared for the briefest of seconds, and beyond that, a sight of green.
Using the spear, Jeru hoisted himself up and stumbled forward, heart pounding painfully in his ears. The song called from the left, and he veered after it, cutting a diagonal slice through the trees. In a flurry of brown wings, the little bird lifted off its branch and swooped further in, still singing its melody.
Jeru kept the bird in his vision, knocking his knees against trunks and protruding roots in his haste. He caught the gaze of a bright golden eye seeking out his own, piercing and almost frightening in its intensity. Then his foot fell into a crevasse between two roots, and he plunged face-first through a gap in the trees, spear flying from his grip.
His mouth filled with moist dirt, and his hands slapped against a thick layer of leaves. Jeru spat as he pulled himself up, and then felt every muscle in his body tense he wiped the loamy soil from his face.
The skeleton trees were gone.
Jeru snatched up his spear from where it had fallen, holding it at the ready as he turned in a slow circle. The forest lived and breathed around him, green and vibrant and real. The trees around him were so tall and majestic, they seemed to swallow his vision. He squinted against the watering in his eyes.
Strangely enough, the ground around him was clear, though he was hedged in on all sides by the Wood. The Path led away from his standing place and into the unknown. Jeru hesitated, looking at the forest behind him, and then began to follow the Path.
The silence that greeted him was different than that of the Skeleton Forest. This place was alive, and the quiet hush of the Path nearly unnerved Jeru. He paused for a moment, listening. Over the unnatural pounding of his heart, he almost though he could hear the sound of running water, and the twitter of birdsong.
The Path must lead to the river. Jeru hurried on again, following the call of the water deep into the wood, until he stepped into a clearing.
Around him, the forest stirred awake, suddenly chorusing with all the sounds a living wood ought to make. A thousand voices sang in the dusky green light. Jeru glanced behind him, but the Path had vanished. Instead, there was a vast pool of dark water, a gentle spray washing up the rocky sides as the water swirled past the brim.
Jeru approached the whirlpool cautiously. While not the river he was expecting, it was certainly a source of water. Swinging his water gourds off his back, he undid the tops and kneeled at the water’s edge. The current seemed strong and unnatural, but his thirst was stronger. He dipped his gourd into the current.
The strength of the water seized him like the arm of a giant. The gourd swirled out of his grasp, and the whirlpool lashed out and ripped him from his perch on the edge. His spear was left behind, harmless, on the bank.
Water filled how mouth, mocking him for his hapless thirst as he was dragged around and around, and then under. His arms were pinned and useless against the might of the current. Light from above dimmed and went out as the curtain of water closed over him, sealing him into his watery grave.
Jeru had failed his people, drowning in the water that was meant to save them.
Chapter Two: The Waterfolk
The might of the full moon bore down over the palace gardens; Kiriel could feel it stirring in her blood, strengthening her hands as she coaxed tiny jets of water through the veins of her plant. The flowers slowly unfurled and bloomed under her fingers, the flush of purple racing from their centers to coat every broad petal.
Kiri stood up and brushed grass and dirt from her skirts, flinging the dampness off the material with a quick stroke of her fingers. From her vantage atop a series of tiered horticultures, she could see a small slice of the gardens as Hymlume settled herself into the twinkling sky. The King was holding full court tonight, as he did whenever the Great Lady’s face was unveiled. Many Fair Folk wandered the vast grounds, some natives of Kiri’s demesne, and others visitors from afar, come to see the wondrous Eternity Garden of the King of the Watermen. Fables ran in the Far World and the Near that King Telenor boasted the most beautiful palace grounds of all Faerie, and fables meant much in the Far World.
Many of the most skilled waterfolk were at work tonight, including Kiri, ensuring that every plant, tree, and shrub was thriving in perfection. Directly below, another gardener pulled and pushed a flowering crabapple into a fantastic sculpture. What exactly it resembled, Kiri didn’t know, for the water escaped the gardener’s motions and the tree collapsed under the strain. The Faerie raised his hands high in frustration.
Stifling a smile, Kiri extended a hand toward the misbehaving plant. Even from this height, she could feel the water, and gave a tug. The crabapple responded to the flow and shaped itself into many graceful loops, curving around the confused waterman.
Kiri laughed and ducked out of sight, bounding down the opposite side of the layered terraces. A world of perfection flashed past her as she made her way toward the palace and out of the grounds, everything still and flawless in Hymlume’s glow. Kiri’s bare feet rejoiced at the dew on the grass and sent sheets of it flying. It was a small rebellion in the midst of so much order, but Kiri would never wear shoes like the rest of the court. Let them lift their noses at her; she was a lowlander, after all.
Some days, she missed the wild friendliness of her own home; natural and untamed, like Goldstone beyond. There was high honor in the King’s court, but it could leave the bitter taste of homesickness in her mouth.
Kiri skirted the edge of the palace, sweeping up a wave of water from a fountain pool to lever herself on top of the wall. When she released it, the water sloshed back towards its basin, but not before catching a visitor unawares.
“Dragon’s Teeth,” a man swore from below as the wave slapped him across the face.
Kiri leaped down and hurried away, the gleam of Hymlume’s light laughing after her. Past the spacious grounds at the front of the Palace and into the twilit forest she ran, ducking and weaving among the whispering trees. She could feel the water rising in the trunks, awakening to the moon’s call.
A larger source of water raged in the near distance, making her palms itch in anticipation long before she actually heard the roar of the Falls.
When she burst into the clearing, the familiar sight of the gateway greeted her; the great waterfall that seemingly descended from the sky, swirling and pouring into the river that fed the entire demesne. The cool spray cast itself at Kiri’s feet, driven by the night breeze.
Kiri cupped her hands over her mouth. “Tao!” she shouted above the roar of the Falls.
“Who’s there?” Another waterman appeared on the other bank. “Kiri? Is that you?”
“Who else do you think it is, you moon-maddened imp?” Kiri flexed her wrists and swept up the water, carrying herself across the river.
“All quiet tonight?” she asked her brother when she landed on the opposite shore.
Tao drew himself up tall and crossed his arms over his chest, his right forearm resting underneath the gleaming silver guard’s ensign that clasped his cloak below the shoulder. “Of course. Not a tremor of a disturbance from the gate tonight. Any faerie would be mad to approach the whirlpool at Hymlume’s coming.”
Kiri smiled. “I know of several folk with questionable sanity that wander the Wood on nights like this.”
“Well, they would have me to deal with.” Toa glanced at the source of the river, a frown creasing his brow. “Do you know whom the King received at court today? That Cat-man from Rudibous.”
“Sir Eanrin is here? What for?” Kiri had never met the famed poet, but she had heard many tales of his adventures in the Near and Far Worlds.
“No one would say; and you wouldn’t believe the fuss he made coming in. Had to have five guards bending the water away from him so he wouldn’t get wet and complained about the Hylial Gate the entire time. What business that faerie has coming to our demesne if he hates water so much, I can’t even begin to fathom. Do you hear that?” Tao ended his rant and cast a piercing look at the Falls.
Kiri could feel something heavy crossing through the gateway, caught up in the water. “Look!” She pointed at a dark shape that suddenly dropped into the Falls from the invisible entrance. “Someone did enter the whirlpool.”
Tao rushed to the water’s edge. “What kind of fool---”
His words were cut off as Kiri plunged into the powerful current. Heaviness pressed around her on all sides as she gained her bearings and cut through the might of Hylial’s outpourings. Ripples danced from her fingertips and pulsed all around her body, cocooning her body against the full fury of the Falls.
She watched as the dark shape sank into the depths, racing beyond her sight. Kiri shot forward with a powerful thrust, summoning the water behind her to hasten her descent. The River was deep; so deep that even she might lose her air before reaching the bottom. The stranger would probably be dead long before that point.
Hymlume’s light began to fade as Kiri reached out to grasp the arm of the stranger. They hovered in the pulsing silver current for a moment, caught in the ethereal gloaming of the river. Then Kiri gathered the water in a maelstrom beneath them, and they soared upward.
Tao had her by the arms before she even broke the surface. He hauled Kiri up the bank, cursing under his breath, not even looking at the stranger sprawled at the edge of the water.
“Tao, let me be; I’m fine.” Kiri shook her brother off, scrambling down to the stranger’s side.
“Don’t touch it!” Tao shouted after her. “Stay back; can’t you see---?”
The heavy aura of mortality hit Kiri like a slap of ice. She stopped, looking down at the motionless form beneath her.
She had never laid eyes on a human before.
He was dark, and strong, and would have been a head taller than Tao if he had been standing. But under his tattered robe, his chest was quiet and still.
“He’s dead.” Kiri’s own breath caught for a moment, and then she knelt at the mortal man’s side. There was water inside him, where there should not be. Her fingers hovered over his lips, and a stream burst from his mouth.
He lurched forward, coughing and thrusting her away from him as he spat up the rest of the water in his lungs. Kiri stood, hands and clothes still dripping from the River, and glanced at Tao as he approached.
“I’ll call for an escort.” Tao reached for the shell horn at his waist. “We must bring him to Telenor.”
Chapter Three: A Call for Aid
Jeru had died. The spirits of the River were gathering around him now, ready to take him to his final reward. He could see their pale, watery faces and shining liquid eyes; he could feel the cool, ghostly aura hovering from the tips of their willowy fingers.
Then one of them slapped him across the back.
“There, there. You still have some water inside you; cough it up.”
What denizen of the spirit world was this?
Jeru keeled over in the grass and vomited up all the river water within him, as well as his last meal. If this was the realm of the dead, it felt unpleasantly similar to the land of the living. Jeru wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked up at the creature that had hailed him into this place.
She stood against the moonlight, slight and fair; colorless hair fell away from her pointed face in waves. Her eyes gleamed, uncomfortably bright with the silver of the night skies.
“Who are you?” he said.
She was a maiden of the mist, unreal. He must have fallen asleep at the water’s edge.
His dream answered.
“I am Kiriel of Telenor’s people. Of Hymlineal.”
“I’m Kiri; welcome to Hymlineal.”
“That’s enough!” Another mist-creature, this one not so agreeable, emerged from behind the first. “Don’t talk to him until the rest of the guard gets here. He may prove to be violent.”
“You’re not afraid of him, are you?”
“Somehow he broke through the wards of the gate. We don’t know what kind of power we’re dealing with.” The taller creature cast untrusting eyes in Jeru’s direction.
“He can’t be very powerful if he nearly drowned himself.”
New voices carried through the silvery trees, echoing across the river. An entire host of the strange people came into view, swarming across the water and gathering around Jeru in a swaying, damp crowd.
“Are you the guardians of this river?” Jeru looked from one set of shimmering eyes to the next.
“Um,” said the girl.
“Yes,” said the irritable man.
“Then we are saved.” Jeru closed his eyes and slumped against the ground.
Cool, smooth stone pressed against his cheek. Jeru’s fingers slid across the glassy surface of the floor as he pushed himself up; his own figure stared back at him, wavering in the half-light of cold lanterns. Pale reflections of blue, silver, and white hovered nearby, leading up to their flesh-and-blood compatriots that were gathered around Jeru in a distrustful half-circle. Beyond the people, at the head of the room, sat a powerful man on a glasswater throne.
Here, in this alien hall beyond the river, lay the salvation of his people. Jeru bowed low to the king and raised his hand beseechingly.
“My Lord,” he croaked, and the words strangled themselves out. All of the river that he had swallowed, and still his throat broke in thirst.
“Water,” he spoke again, and the crowd tittered. “Water.”
“He suffers from thirst,” one of the creatures said, looking shocked. Perhaps it was a malady that these people had never seen.
“Here,” said another voice, and Jeru turned to find a familiar face smiling up at him. The girl from the river offered him water cupped in her hands. As he stared, the trembling sphere of liquid rose from her fingertips to his, and Jeru held the water and drank.
“Thank you,” he said, and as she turned away, he noticed the layer of loamy earth clinging to her bare feet. Everyone else in the room wore shoes.
The crowd had fallen into a hush, and Jeru look up to see that the king had risen from his seat. His stance was not particularly threatening, at least not in the way of a rival chieftain facing down another, but he swept an aura of power about himself as the folds of his sapphire mantel settled about his feet.
“Who are you, Mortal? What are you doing in my lands?” His voice carried like the force of the River.
Jeru did not tremble. It had been many years since he ceased to fear the wrath of man, when instead he had the insatiable maws of the drought haunting his footsteps, overshadowing his life from childhood to manhood.
“I came looking for help,” he said truthfully, meeting the eyes of the king.
The voice of the crowd sprang to life again.
“You were searching for Hymlineal, Mortal?” the king said.
“No; I was searching for the River. My people need it.”
“The River is the life of our land. It began to wither and die, years ago, and now it is gone. Every well has gone dry; our lives dried up with them.”
The damp night breeze gusted through the echoing hall as Jeru’s last sentence ended. Here, in this cool, quiet place, his words sounded distant and strange. A myth from a far-off land. The taste of sweet, fresh water still hung on his lips. “Please; we are almost gone. Can’t your people help us?”
Jeru couldn’t hear the whispered words of the Fair Folk around him. His eyes were fastened on their king.
The man’s eyes clouded with uncertainty. “You should not have come here,” he said, his voice quiet among the crowd.
The taste in Jeru’s mouth turned bitter. “You must come to us!”
“And do what?” The shoulders under the sapphire robes shrugged, as though in helplessness. “The turning of the Near World does not concern us here.”
Jeru was trembling now. “But---”
The king of Hymlineal turned his back. “Leave my demesne.”
Jeru started forward with a wild gesture as though to throw himself at the king’s feet, but a cold band of water snapped around his chest, binding him in place.
“Put him on the other side of the gate,” the king said as he settled into his throne, grimly straightening the folds of his robe. “And take a stronger guard to secure Hylial against him.”
Jeru’s shout was lost in the crowd as several pairs of hands grasped him by the shoulders and dragged him from the room. The pale courtiers and their glassy hall vanished from sight, sealed off as the outer doors slammed shut. None of the guards spoke as they hauled Jeru across the smooth lawns and past the softly murmuring fountains of crystal perfection. The forest closed around them, fraught with living birdsong.
Then the guards threw him beneath the waterfall.
Jeru remembered nothing of that upward journey. In the next instant, he lay next to the foaming whirlpool, clutching at the muddy earth as he gasped for breath. The guards were nowhere to be seen.
The pool of water mocked him, laughing as it swirled beneath his bitter gaze. Jeru briefly considered jumping right back in, but he had a feeling that he would simply drown this time.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a shifting glimmer of light. Jeru whipped around to face whatever creature was slinking from the shadows of this monstrous forest.
The girl from the river stood before him, her pale garment---or maybe her skin---shimmering softly in the twilight of the trees. Her head scarcely came up to his shoulder, but her stance was strong and she gazed at him without fear in her eyes.
Jeru took a step back. “What are you doing here?”
The girl’s brow furrowed. “You wanted help, didn’t you?”
“I…” Jeru’s heart began to beat faster and faster, a war drum summoning him into action. “Yes! But, your King---” He glanced at the drinking horns that she had strapped around her torso.
A spark of mischief glinted in the girl’s eye. “He didn’t expressly forbid any of his subjects to help,” she said, and then her expression sobered. “Besides, you’ll never find your way through the wood again on your own. The Paths can be dangerous, especially for mortal feet. I don’t know how you found Hymlineal in the first place.”
“I followed a songbird,” Jeru said, and the explanation seemed palatable enough. The girl gave him a curious look.
“Ah, well; we can’t all expect the same luck.” The girl---what was her name again?--- glided to the edge of the clearing on silent feet and stood before the dark mass of the Wood.
Jeru slunk after her, hesitatingly stopping at her side. “What---?”
“You think of home, Mortal Boy,” she said, taking his arm; Jeru shivered beneath her touch. “I’ll find us a Path.”
Chapter Four: Silent Death
The further down the Path they went, the harder Kiri could feel her Demesne tugging at the invisible cord that was hooked somewhere deep in her center. She had never gone far from Hymlineal and the River, and certainly never crossed into the Near World. The water that coursed and bled through the ground and the Wood around her was strange and alien. It echoed with a different heartbeat.
Kiri didn’t know what would await her at the end of the Path. Truth be told, she didn’t know what would be waiting for her at home either, except a furious brother. Tao couldn’t imagine why she would endanger her position at court to go chasing down a fool’s errand in the Mortal Realm. His guard’s ensign was everything to him. He’d told her this as he seized her and shook her by the shoulders; she’d been tempted to drown him in the nearest fountain.
Kiri’s foot stepped from the green of the Wood and sank in a patch of sand. Every drop of moisture around her suddenly vacated the premises, and she tottered forward, sinking to her knees against the dead trunk of the ashen tree before her. She was dry and hot; a brittle leaf under the awful eye of the Sun.
“Lume…love us,” she gasped, turning her face away from the sky. Never had she seen him burn so brightly.
“Are you well?” Jeru bent over her, keeping what he probably considered a safe distance of several inches.
Kiri groaned. “Dragons eat it; the whole world is burning. Why do you live in this horrible place?”
“My village is that way.” Jeru pointed through the skeleton trees in a vague direction. “And the heat really is going down. It’s nearly sunset.”
As she struggled to her feet, breathing in dusty air through her mouth, Kiri looked up and saw the veracity of the world around her. The ground truly was dead; barren of life as a tomb. She couldn’t feel the beat of a water source anywhere.
She glanced at the water horns at her waist. “I’ve brought a cup to fight a blazing fire.” But she followed Jeru through the dead forest, placing one bare foot after another on the blazing sand.
By the time they reached the border of the trees, it felt as though her soles had been scorched off, and she stood panting beside Jeru, bent double and blinking eyes that refused to water.
“Your skin is burning already,” Jeru said, untying the stretch of cloth that cinched his robe at the waist. “Lay this over your head; it’ll keep the worst of the sun off you.” He held the cloth--- which might have once been brightly dyed, but was now mostly brown---out to Kiri.
She hesitated only a moment before taking it and wrapping it around her head and shoulders. Stars knew where it had been, as raggedy as it was; it smelled thickly of mortality, and something richer, earthier, and not altogether unpleasant.
As Kiri shifted back and forth on her stinging feet, Jeru glanced down at her.
“It’s a long way back to the village,” he said. “I’ll carry you, until the sun is gone and the sand cools.”
Kiri didn’t like this arrangement at all, but she could feel the blisters starting to form on the bottom of her soles. “If you think you can manage,” she said.
“I carried my sister for weeks when she fell ill. You’re lighter, by the look of you.” He reached out and grasped her wrists, bending down as he hoisted her up onto his back. The threadbare fabric of his robe scratched her knees as she settled onto her perch.
The water horns thumped against Kiri’s sides as they went, swaying with Jeru’s steady rhythm. He kept a swift pace despite the Water Sprite clinging to his shoulders. When Lume dipped below the far horizon and Hymlume appeared above the other, he let Kiri slide down onto the cracked earth.
“There it is; Naairu. All that is left of us.”
A cluster of mudbrick houses peeked out from behind the nearest hill, dark against the Moon’s searching rays. The dry breeze stirred the silence; nothing more.
“My home is in the center of the village,” Jeru said as they approached.
Stretching beyond the houses were low stone and mud walls, ringing fields that lay fallow and dead. The buildings were like a gathering of tombs, their empty, dark windows staring blankly at Kiri as she passed. She didn’t ask where the villagers were.
Jeru led her to the largest dwelling, pushing aside the door-flap for her to enter. An even stronger scent assaulted Kiri’s nostrils, as though death were hovering in the room. Vague shapes were outlined in the moonlight, scattered around the confined space of the house. On a cot by the door, a human form nestled into the rags on which it was lying, breathing so lightly that Kiri thought for a moment that it was already dead.
She reached trembling hands toward the creature, her fingers gently brushing the air around its face. A powerful wave of heat pulsed from its skin, too hot even for these dark mortals.
Jeru hovered over her shoulder. “Her name is Nia, my sister. She came down with the sickness a few weeks ago. It’s been devouring my people one by one, ever since the River began to run dry.” His words quavered, and Kiri felt something hot and damp fall onto her neck. “If there is any---”
“We have never had sickness in Hymlineal,” Kiri broke in, her eyes fixed on the feverish girl. “Never. I…”
She stormed out the door, flinging the flap aside with one hand and reaching for her water horns with the other. Perhaps, somewhere deep in the ground, were seeds that had lain dormant over the years and were still waiting. She would find them. The seeds that she had wrapped up in her mantel were bursting to grow, though she didn’t know how they would take to the earth in the Near Realm. Kiri reached inside the folds of her outer dress and flung some of the precious vessels to the wind.
Then, she loosed the flood on them.
The water horns were Tao’s, and they held much more than she would have first guessed. Kiri remade the earth with water of Hymlineal, healing soil and coaxing roots from the seeds to thrust downward.
The power of the full moon ran through her fingers as she worked the lifeblood through the newborn plants, strengthening stems, unfurling leaves, and driving roots ever deeper. With every step she took, green shoots burst from the ground beneath her feet, creeping across the space in front of the dark house. Water glistened in silver arcs, swept every which way by her hands.
The dry breeze rustled through the young stalks and blades of green that now spread outward from the house. Kiri sent the last of her water rushing through the trunk of the tree that now guarded the door. Its leaves shuddered as the veins on the broad undersides swelled with liquid.
Kiri’s fingers stilled, aching at the tips with fervor, and her breath trembled in her chest.
The garden she had created was still surrounded by a wasteland. It would last perhaps a day, and then wither and die.
Her eyes filled and spilled over, the saltwater tracks stinging her sun-scorched skin. She wiped her face with a hand that was rough with grains of sand and grime.
A soft sound of astonishment carried from the doorway of the house. Jeru stood inside the frame, his dark eyes wide and round. In his arms, he cradled Nia’s body. Kiri couldn’t see if the girl still breathed.
“This is a miracle,” Jeru whispered, stepping onto the grass as though it were hallowed ground and stopping under the outstretched branches of the silver tree.
“It isn’t enough,” Kiri said, chest heaving. “I can’t fix it; I don’t know why I thought I should come.” Curse her own arrogance, to think that she---a faery childe that had yet to pass her first century---could mend something older and wiser sprites would not attempt. “I am sorry.”
“It’s beautiful,” Jeru said, laying his burden to rest in the grass. “Thank you. We will rest well tonight.” His smile gleamed sincerely, but it trembled at the corners of his mouth. As he bent to fold his sister’s hands over her chest, his shoulders loosened as though in resignation; done fighting, emptied of strength. Brother and sister looked almost peaceful under the moonlight, the protective arms of the tree reaching over them.
Death would come to snatch it all away before another sunset.
“I’ll see myself back,” Kiri said, and the empty water horns slapped her backside as she turned heel and fled.
Several hundred yards vanished beneath her feet when she remembered that she had come here from the opposite direction. A hazy, shapeless voice somewhere in her head told her that she ought to stop, but she didn’t. Her rebellious feet reached out for the next step---and found empty air.
Kiri plunged down the sharp incline of hard earth, hitting first on her shoulder, and then striking face-foremost and skidding down the bottom of the slope. Muddy slime, a bare memory of water, smeared down the front of her dress as she landed. Both sides of the embankment rose high above her. This was the bottom of the river, or what used to be.
Driving her fingers as deep as she could into the damp soil, Kiri searched for any sign of the mighty current that once ran through this ravine. “Where are you?” she said, her voice raw and dry. “Why did you abandon them?” Her breath came rapid and urgent as she pressed her head against the earth, listening.
There was no trace of it anywhere. The heartbeat of the land had dried up.
“I don’t understand,” she said to the earth. “Why did I come here? Why did I have to try?”
A high, clear note trilled in the night breeze. Scrambling up onto her knees, Kiri scanned the air for any sign of the first living animal she had heard in this desolate place.
The skies were empty.
The birdsong came again, this time from behind, echoing up the length of the ravine. Kiri wavered, looking down the deep riverbed as it traveled out of sight. She had used all her water, and now had nothing to defend herself until she returned the Wood.
The bird’s call hit a more urgent note, and Kiri’s feet answered of their own accord. She raced down the middle of the river’s grave, throwing up stiff spats of mud in her wake; Jeru’s sash slipped off her head and dangled loosely around her shoulders, the ends trailing behind. Suddenly, she knew what it was that called her around the bend.
There was no Thrush waiting for her around the first turn, or the second, or the third. Kiri expected to see it any moment, but its song was always ahead of her, calling her further down the riverbed. She crossed over a mile chasing the invisible voice.
Then she stopped, pulling in long, slow breaths and straining her ears for the sound of her guide. It came from above her now, somewhere near at hand. She glanced along the steep banks of the ravine, and saw a flash of speckled feathers by the light of Hymlume.
“Where are you?” she shouted, and her voice rang against the cliffs around her.
As the echoes faded, another sound thrummed up to her through her feet, rolling deep and steady in the earth. Kiri’s chest tensed, and she hardly dared to move for a moment, afraid she would lose the sound of it.
Then she flung herself down, palms splayed over the mud, and listened.
Down, down, deep in the ground, lived the heartbeat of a river. How far away, Kiri couldn’t say, but the tips of her fingers tingled in answer, and the power of the water pulled at something in her center. This was a mighty river, and ancient. It had wandered in the dark below for many ages of men, and now it was calling to her on the surface.
She looked for the Thrush, but it was nowhere to be seen.
Hands out and facing the earth, Kiri closed her eyes and reached within herself, finding the cord that stretched from her center to the roiling water below. Then, summoning every drop of strength in her being, she pulled.
In the depths, the river roared in answer. Heat blazed in her plexus and her hands, and sweat broke out from her forehead to her feet. She could feel the water rising to meet her. Her hands trembled, and then her arms began to shake violently.
The cord grew taut, tightening Kiri’s lungs so that she could hardly breathe. As she gritted her teeth and clung to the water, the cord snapped. She screamed as she crumpled to the ground, legs folding beneath her like fish fins.
“I can’t do it,” she gasped, slumping over. Every last fiber of energy had been drained from her body. The river was too deep in the earth for her to raise on her own.
She would have to go back to Hymlineal, and beg a hand or two. Maybe someone from the lowlands; someone who wasn’t at court. Kiri frowned. Not Tao, either. Even then, she wasn’t sure if any of her people would have the strength to lift the water through so much earth.
Kiri glanced skyward. Perhaps an even greater force was needed.
She gingerly lifted herself on legs that threatened to tumble, and pointed her nose in the direction of the nearest Path. One hovered on the edge of her senses; she would have to hope that it lead toward home.
Chapter Five: Kiri’s Audience
When Kiri arrived at Hylial Gate, she found the waters boiling in fury. They rose well above the stones that kept the gate in place, swirling in the particular direction of a man that gleamed scarlet in the half-light of the wood. Brushing off his perfectly-dry tunic, the man inclined his head slightly toward the members of the guard that were struggling to keep the gate from leaping from its pool.
That man must have said something cutting indeed to make Hylial surge with such violence. Kiri wondered if he really was the famed Sir Eanrin, quick of wit and tongue. He seemed to have lost his charm when faced with the waterfall.
“I shall leave you to it, then,” said the golden-haired bard, and he strode out of the clearing, glancing with surprise at Kiri as he passed.
A great arm of water smacked one of the guardsmen and sent him sprawling onto Kiri. She groaned under the weight, and then groaned even louder when she saw whose elbow was digging into her ribs.
“Kiriel?” Tao frowned down at her, mild astonishment flickering across his flushed face. The pool quieted, and the other men looked at them with something like apprehension before diving back through the gate.
There was a pause in the living silence of the Wood.
“So?” Tao began, carefully straightening his cloak and ensign. “Did you heal all the flaws in the Near World during your excursion? Do you congratulate yourself in ending the sufferings of the Mortal Realm through use of your great wisdom and prowess? Oh, don’t be modest,” he said, looking fiercely into her eyes. “Do tell.”
“I did find a way to save them.” Kiri’s voice was low and strained. “I came back for help.”
“Telenor wants to see you; he isn’t pleased.”
“You won’t come with me?” Kiri hadn’t realized until that moment how much she wished her brother would side with her.
Tao’s brows furrowed for a moment, and then sagged apart. “I have watch,” he said hoarsely, and turned away.
Kiri was too stunned to shout after him as he plunged into the whirlpool, leaving nothing but angry water in his wake.
“Dragon-eaten, two-faced---” Kiri slapped the pool with a heavy wave.
Then she tucked her face into her skirts and began to wail.
Tears soaked her dress, raining from the cloud of anger, weariness, and helplessness that enveloped her. Tonight, she knew, was the worst of all her young years.
“What’s all this racket about?”
Kiri nearly screamed as something warm and furry brushed against her back. She whirled around to find herself face-to-face with the largest orange beast she had ever seen. The cat’s poised pink nose was barely an inch from her own.
“Hello,” she said, sniffling.
The cat-man sat back on his furry haunches and flicked his ears to the side. “Ah. You’re the girl who drenched me in the garden. My evening was perfectly safe and dry up to that point.”
A dim memory of last night’s escapades hovered in Kiri’s mind. “A river of pardons, Cat.”
“Thank you, but I’ve had enough to do with rivers tonight,” he said, tail lashing against his side. “Why were you crying just now? What can one of Telenor’s people possibly have to trouble her?”
“I can’t raise the river.”
The cat’s ears flattened. “Never mind, I shouldn’t have gotten involved.”
“Their whole land is dying because the river dried up.” Kiri paused. “I found another, flowing deep in the earth. I…just wasn’t strong enough to raise it on my own. Now I don’t know what I should do.” Her chest shuddered as she drew breath. “I can’t leave them to die!”
“Ah. This would be about that mortal boy that barged in earlier. What else are you going to do?”
“Find help! I…” An image of Tao’s retreat into the pool flashed through her mind. “Though I don’t know where to look.”
“Among your kinsmen?”
“I can’t return to Hymlineal if the king is angry with me. I might not be able to return to the Near World!”
Blinking almost languidly, the cat lowered its golden-eyed gaze. “Do you, by chance, remember a faerie by the name of Adric? He’s one of yours, I believe.”
Kiri frowned, searching back in the shoals of her memory. “I had heard---yes, he was a Waterman from Hymlineal. A former guardsman, I think. But didn’t he leave for…” She softened her voice, “Isn’t he a knight of Farthestshore? I’ve only ever heard rumors.”
“I’ve a faint---mind you, only a faint--- acquaintance with the man. He prefers such wet climates.”
Kiri clasped her hands at her waist. “Then you can ask him to come and help!”
Ears flying back sharply, the cat began to edge away. “I don’t remember volunteering my assistance. Besides, I’m not your errand boy.”
“But you are a knight of Farthestshore, aren’t you?”
“You don’t call upon that Name?” The hair at the tip of the cat’s tail stood on end.
Kiri looked solemnly into his gleaming yellow orbs. “I do,” she said.
He blinked once, and then sighed and looked as wretchedly forlorn as only a cat can. “Very well,” he grumbled in a voice that was undoubtedly meant to incite guilt. “I probably know where to find him.”
“Will you be long?”
“A Path had already opened up while you were speaking. I was hoping that it would disappear.” The cat grinned sardonically and rose gracefully to his feet. “Ah, well. Meet us at the border of this village you’re so concerned over. I’m sure you and your wet kinsman can commiserate together and solve all the world’s problems.”
Kiri stood. “Are you certain you’ll be able to find the place?”
With an impatient flick of his tail, the cat turned to the eaves of the forest. “Believe me, I wish I couldn’t. My Prince never leads me astray.”
In a golden flash, he bounded onto his Path and vanished, leaving Kiri alone in the clearing.
A trill of the Thrush’s song sprang from the forest canopy, and she smiled. Well, not quite alone.
Chapter Six: Song of the River
Voices surrounded Jeru, as soft and brittle as the wind through the grass, which was already growing frail in the dry heat. The remnant of his people gathered in the oasis, murmuring with wonder as they reached bony, trembling hands toward the delicate fronds of the hedges and ran their fingers over the lawn.
“Fruit!” screamed a child in a strained, rasping voice.
Jeru looked up at the tree and saw one more gift that Kiriel had left them. Clusters of round, firm fruits the color of sunset dangled in the breeze, leaning toward the outstretched hands of the villagers.
Seizing one of the juicy spheres, Jeru bent down toward the prone form of Nia as she rested with her back on the trunk. She couldn’t chew it herself, so he mashed the fruit in his hand and pushed the mixture into her mouth.
He held his breath. She remained motionless for a moment, but then her jaw began to work, painfully from side-to-side, and her throat moved as she swallowed.
Whether Kiri left some of her magic in the fruit, he didn’t know, but Nia’s eyelids fluttered as he fed her more of the paste.
Then, she opened them for the first time in weeks. Soft brown orbs looked up into his and fixed there in recognition.
“Will she return?” Nia whispered, reaching out to him. “Will the river spirit come back?”
Jeru held his little sister close. “I don’t know. But we owe her this one night, this time of happiness.” Tears sprang to his eyes as he looked upon the beautiful night, warm and silvery in their oasis; perhaps the last he would ever see. “We may rest in peace.”
Suddenly, the tree behind them shifted to the side.
At least, it seemed to. Jeru thought it was making room for the multitude of trees that appeared behind it. Then the extra forest vanished as quickly as it had come, and three people stepped into the oasis.
With a thrill of hope, and something akin to terror, he recognized the first as Kiri.
The second was a slender man with a long face and gleaming eyes that seemed like, in some way, to Kiri’s.
The third person was a cat, for a moment. Then he stood taller, and his jaunty, outlandish scarlet robes rose up with him, and he was a golden-eyed man with an unsettling curl in the corner of his mouth. Jeru squinted. Or perhaps he was still a cat, or both. Whichever he was, he looked extraordinarily pleased with himself.
Kiri’s face turned toward the man in scarlet.
“You didn’t have to come all the way, Sir Eanrin,” she said.
The man’s eyes flashed in the moonlight. “Curiosity,” he murmured, glancing around at the villagers. “I can’t let you watery folk have all the excitement. Besides, you’ll be doing all the work.”
Jeru stood and bowed to the newcomers, and Nia rose with him. “Welcome to Naairu, Great Ones.”
“Great Ones?” The yellow-headed man grinned. “I like these folk.”
The moment Sir Adric appeared alongside the cat-man, Kiri knew she was in the presence of a master waterman. Power radiated from his core, deeper and more ancient than any of Telenor’s elite guardsmen. She felt young and foolish standing next to him, like a slender creek running beside the sea.
He hovered near her shoulder like some imperious guardian as she grasped Jeru’s hand in greeting.
“You’ve returned,” Jeru said, his eyes wide with disbelief and lit with a flame like hope.
“Of course I did. I’m not finished yet.”
Voices tittered in the background, growing louder as the other people gathered on the lawn pressed closer. Awe filled their dark eyes, and one withered old woman reached a hand that shook like an aged leaf toward Kiri.
“River guardians,” she whispered, tears washing her dusty face.
“Yes,” Kiri said, raising her voice so all the crowd could hear. “We’ve come to return your river to you.”
She felt a heavy pressure as Adric laid a hand on her shoulder.
“It won’t be easy, little one,” he said.
“No,” Kiri clenched her fists. “But I didn’t come all this way on my own, Sir Adric.”
Kiri scrabbled down the dry riverbed until she reached a place where she could feel the river below the surface. Adric followed at her heels, his thin brows furrowed in concentration, and Eanrin stayed up on the bank.
“To safely observe,” he said.
Most of the village, those that felt well enough to travel, gathered behind him. Jeru stood at their front, his sister perched high on his back.
The call of the river below thrummed faintly in Kiri’s veins. Sir Adric faced her from across the valley floor, his hands held out, and palms down. He nodded as though listening to the water below, and then raised his voice so it would carry across the distance.
“It runs deep in the earth, as you said.” He paused, and made a pulling motion with his hands, straining so that his knuckles stood out. “It’s so deep, I think it would exhaust both our reserves if we tried to bring it to the surface.”
Kiri’s heart plummeted. “But, I---”
“We will have to call on another, more ancient voice to raise the river. One who pulls and guides the seas herself with her song.”
For a moment all the worlds, both Near and Far, held their breath. Kiri lifted her eyes to Lady Hymlume gliding through the midnight skies above, perhaps pausing to look down over the brittle creatures beneath her summit.
“Sir Adric, I…”
“You are young, and perhaps have not learned to discern the voices of the heavens.” His tone softened, and he stretched his arms toward her. “But try, Kiriel. Seek out her song. She knows more of the nature of your power than you do yourself.”
Kiri’s hands quivered. None of the Great Light’s voices had ever been distinct to her. Among the oldest and wisest Faerie kings and queens, there were some rumored to commune with the lord and lady of the sky. But even Telenor, of her people, did not claim that power.
Gathered around Hymlume were her children, the stars, though they waned pale next to their mother’s silvery fullness. But in the hum of their cadence, Kiri could find no melody, no words. It was all a colorless noise to her ears.
She reached out her hands and gave a tug on the river deep below, feeling the water gush upward in response. Already she was tottering with fatigue, worn to unraveling from her nighttime adventure. Adric was right; they would never make it. The beat of the river was as distant as an echo.
Opposite Kiri, Adric strained with all his might, the veins standing out from his otherwise impassive face.
Then, Kiri felt the feather-light touch of wings on her neck, and a tiny voice trilled in her ear.
Above the earth-bound verse receding
The song of strength receiving
Won’t you follow me?
Hymlume’s song suddenly filled her ears with tingling rush. It wove into the Thrush’s melody, arching round and round with its silver thread, weaving the spell tightly into place. Kiri understood why she had never been able to understand it before. She had been missing the most important part.
As the stars sang a shimmering descant, and the voice of the Thrush still echoed through her mind, Kiri began to hum Hymlume’s harmony. The pull of the moon raced through her veins like never before, throbbing with power that seemed too much for her body to encompass. The ground beneath her feet began to shudder with the force of the water rushing to the surface.
Minutes dragged by as Kiri and Adric fought the river. A hot sweat broke over Kiri’s brow, and she wondered if even now there would be strength enough in them to succeed.
As her knees threatened to cave and her hands grew numb from the power flowing through them, the ground began to buck and heave.
Someone screamed from atop the bank. Kiri whirled around as a geyser of water shot skyward, ringing Hymlume’s shape in a misty arch.
“Run further down!” Adric shouted, waving to capture her attention.
Kiri nodded, a fierce smile breaking over her face, and she followed him down the length of the dry riverbed, holding her hands out from her sides as she dragged the water along.
A sound like the crack of lightening split the air as the ground beneath them erupted into a watery inferno.
“Get out of it!”
Adric’s cries were faint above the scream of the waters as they ripped through the earth and raged down the valley, snatching Kiri up in the flow. She thrust her hands out, pushing back as the river rolled and shook her, trapping her below the surface.
As she wove the water around herself, trying to redirect the river’s fury, a concussion of a wave even larger than before pounded Kiri, snatching the air from her lungs. It ripped her downwards, flipped her head over heels, and slammed her against the riverbed.
Kiri’s head connected sharply with the hard earth, snapping back in a haze of pain. Then the water faded to black.
Chapter Seven: New Paths
Jeru saw the salvation of his land pouring like molten silver from bowels of the earth. Then he saw the savior of his people fall beneath the onslaught of the river like a star snuffed out of the sky.
“Get everyone back!” The pale waterman said as he clambered from the teeth of the river and onto solid ground. “It may overflow the banks.” Then he glared at the surface of the raging water. “Where is she? Didn’t she climb out?”
Jeru heaved Nia off his back and steadied her with his hands on her shoulders. “Stay here, little one, no matter what happens.” He pushed her toward one of the older women, and raced for the line of water.
“Don’t you dare, mortal boy; you’ll drown!” The man in scarlet made to snatch at his robe as he passed.
Adric was already in the water, fighting the current. Jeru ran to the place where he had last seen Kiri and plunged in, immediately ripped sideways by the arm of the river.
Pandemonium reigned. The water, murky with dirt, filled his mouth and snatched at his robe. It was a miracle that Jeru was able to force his head above the current, buoyed only by the memories of his childhood spent learning to thrash in the water when the river had still flowed through his country.
Something soft coiled around his foot. Jeru dove down, following the strip of fabric into the maelstrom. His hands closed over the arm and shoulder of the body caught in the grasp of the tide, and he gripped them tightly, thrusting off the riverbed with both feet.
They broke surface near the shore, and the waterman caught them and hauled them up. Jeru staggered up the rest of the way, holding his burden close, while Kiri’s kinsman held off the rising flow of the river.
The body in Jeru’s arms was still and lifeless. His sash hung limp and ragged off her shoulders, the wet fabric trailing to the ground as he walked. Jeru laid her beneath the silver tree that had blossomed under her hand only hours before that evening.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Nia’s voice quivered as she knelt at Kiri’s head. “How could a river spirit drown?”
The moon sank low in the sky, and the first glimmers of sunrise woke in the east.
Jeru looked to the cat-man, who stood to the side with his jaw clenched and his face grim.
“Let me through.”
The villagers shifted aside to let the waterman approach. Drenched from his grey locks to his tattered boots, the man lowered himself to the ground and raised Kiri up with one arm.
With a swift pull, he jerked his free hand from her mouth and outward. A stream of water followed, and Kiri lurched forward, coughing and heaving the river water from her lungs.
A collective shout went up from one side of the crowd to the other, and Jeru knelt at Kiri’s side as she blinked and opened her eyes.
“This seems familiar to me, somehow,” he said, tears of joy pricking at his vision.
Kiri’s smile beamed like the coming rays of dawn.
“I will hope, from here on out, to never cross paths with any Fey Folk so affiliated with rivers, and seas, and wetness in general.”
Sir Adric hid a smile, small that it was, that cracked at the corner of his mouth. “We can never know where our Paths will lead us, Eanrin. It is our privilege to simply follow them.”
Kiri brought up the rear of the group, pausing to look one last time on the village of Naairu, no longer bearing the pallor of death like a shroud.
Adric turned toward her. “Would you like us to accompany you back to Hymlineal, little one?”
Gazing into the forest that was opening before them, and then at the village behind them, Kiri hovered at the edge between more than one world.
“I do not wish to return to Hymlineal.” Kiri held her hands out, palms up, toward the two knights of Farthestshore. “I want to go with you.”
Adric’s eyes grew serious. “Are you certain? That is no trifling decision to make. What about your people?”
Eanrin coughed behind his hand, but somehow Kiri knew that he was smiling.
“I’ll return to Hymlineal, someday,” Kiri said, and she thought of Tao. There were wounds that needed to heal between them. “But now my Path leads elsewhere. You said yourself, we can but follow.”
“You would like to meet our Prince?”
“I think I already have.” A strain of music floated past Kiri’s lips; remnants of the Thrush and Hymlume’s song.
A Path opened before them, unfamiliar to Kiri, but with a destination that called her heart home. Just as the trees closed in behind them, she looked back on the Near World and saw a lone sentry standing watch over their departure. Kiri held the sash that draped round her shoulders close.
“I’ll be back,” she promised.
“Is that all, Grandmother?” Vika’s lower lip puckered.
Nia leaned over the cookfire, spearing the fish that lay roasting among the coals and turning them over. “Why, yes. You asked me how the river got its name, and I’ve just told you. The Kiriel, after the little river guardian that raised it from the earth.”
“Was she really a spirit?” Pazu glanced up, knife poised over the crude little spear that lay in his lap.
“I’ve never met another, so I couldn’t tell you.”
“I’d like to meet a spirit of the river,” Pazu said thoughtfully.
Vika tossed her black braids impatiently over one shoulder. “But did she ever come back, Grandmother?”
Nia smiled softly to herself. “You would have to ask your Uncle Jeru about that.”
“Is that why he never married?”
Turning slowly on her stiff hip, Nia regarded Pazu with surprise. “I don’t know, Pazu. Perhaps that is so.”
“I shall ask him.” Vika scurried away from the fire pit, hopping across the village grounds and vanishing from sight around the great silver tree that guarded the chieftain’s house.
Pazu stood more slowly, holding his spear aloft in the sunlight.
“And what is that for, Pazu?” Nia asked.
He turned toward her, his eyes as serious as his great-uncle’s. “When it’s finished, Grandmother, I will take it with me to search out my Path.”
Beyond them, just out of sight over the green hill, the river laughed and gleamed in the face of the sun.
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