March 2008 Volume Two Issue Three
The River-Hag - Silvia Moreno-Garcia
When she first saw the man she thought him a ghost and even though she knew ghosts were dangerous and could drag people down into the water, she still moved closer to him. When she knelt by his side it was clear he was still alive, but barely.
"Brock! Come and help me! There's a man injured!" she cried.
Brock grumbled and approached, staring at the man lying between the rushes.
"Come on Brock, we've got to get him home," she urged him.
"What for? The fellow's almost dead."
The man did look pale but Andry had pressed her hand against his chest and felt his heart steady beneath her palm.
"Well he's not dead yet," she said. "Come on, give me a hand."
"He'll be dead in the morning."
"And leave him here in the meantime? With no proper burial?"
"The river will grant him a proper burial."
"Give me a hand," she repeated.
He sighed and complained and they dragged the man onto their little skiff. It started raining shortly thereafter. Brock whistled a merry tune while Andry looked at the man next to her.
"He's probably a brigand or a deserter," Brock said once they were sitting in front of the fire, the smell of fish stew filling every corner of the little abode.
"He is not," Andry said. "Those are good clothes. A gentleman's clothes."
"When he dies, could I have his dagger?" asked Brock, turning towards the corner of the room where Andry's mother was tending to the stranger's wounds.
"Why would you need such a silly trinket?" said the older woman, covering the pale man with yet another blanket.
"To gut fish."
"He's not going to die yet Brock," Andry muttered as she handed him a bowl with stew. "You're such a greedy fool."
Brock shrugged. "You take what the river gives."
"The river didn't give you anything. And if he does die we'll bury him with his things so his ghost won't come back looking for them, isn't that right mother?"
"That is right," nodded the woman, sliding away from the bed and the pale stranger and towards the fire.
"Well I think it would have been more merciful if we'd just left him back there. Now the fellow will be tossing and turning for a few hours before he's dead and bothering you with his moans," Brock said.
Andry placed a cool rag against the stranger's forehead and made a charm of ferns and twigs to drive evil spirits away.
He was handsome, this waxen man, and it was more out of admiration than compassion that Andry watched over him. She did not reveal this to her mother or Brock, knowing they would botch snicker at her childish fancy.
It was not odd though, considering the circumstances, that Andry should find herself entranced by a half-dead man.
There were tiny towns speckled throughout the area, but none close to them. When her father had been alive commerce was decent. Theirs was a prosperous hamlet. Travelers had often gone down the river on their skiffs and life was good. Brock's older brothers also had skiffs and fished and traded along the river. War came and many home were burned or sacked. Her father and Brock's brothers were unwillingly recruited by a group of soldiers passing through the area just like all the other men of age. Brock was lucky; he had only been a small child or they might have taken him too.
Their tiny hamlet had dwindled down to nothing. Only elderly fish folk, some widows and a handful of dirty children remained.
With his brothers lost Brock could have headed over to his aunt's home, a strict and stiff faced woman he despised. But Brock stayed. He felt safer than in a bigger city where the soldiers might easily choose him as an unwilling recruit. Brock was, after all, now a grown man of seventeen.
A grown man and the only person her own age for many leagues. Her mother worried about this situation and tried to put away some money for a dowry. There was, she had told Andry, a nice, suitable butcher's son over at Azun. When Brock heard this he laughed and told Andry the butcher's son had a hare lip.
Still, she supposed hare lip or not she could expect to be married to him one day. Or to Brock, but Brock had nothing, was nothing and Andry's hoped for a better match.
In the meantime Andry peered at the stranger and dragged the wet rag across his forehead.
"He needs medicine," Andry said. "We should get him some medicine."
Her mother and Brock stared at her.
"It's not a good time. The rains are coming. The river-hag will be outside," Brock grumbled.
"She comes on the cold, misty nights from the water. If you can not see her she can not harm you, so hide well under the covers," Brock had said when they were children. "If a single toe peeks from under the covers she will grab you by it and pull you into the river."
The river-hag. Brock's favourite tale used to skilfully torment Andry. It still worked. For a moment Andry felt like stopping her arguing but then she swallowed her fear and spoke.
"Not yet," Andry said. "It's still four days until the full moon."
"We'd have to go to Azun. It would take five days back and forth."
"Well I'm not willing to go anywhere. What are we going to get out of it?"
"It would be the decent thing to do."
Brock crossed his arms but Andry turned to her mother and tried to sound as confident as she could.
"We can do it. He doesn't have to die. We could be back in four days. We could also use some supplies for ourselves. Please? It would be unkind if we didn't."
"It would be unkind if we didn't. Yes. Look at all this rain! It hasn't stopped raining since we stepped out."
Mist drifted between the trees and blotted out the sun. They were reaching a large outcropping of rocks. Samsia's Throne. It was a sacred place and a strange one.
"Hush," Andry said as Samsia's Throne came into view.
Legend said the great kings of old had sat and observed the world from Samsia's Throne. Beneath the rocky outcropping were a number of chambers, nothing more than holes, small caverns, where the priests had placed offerings to the water, the sky, the gods of old.
The river-hag lives near, Brock said when they were children and Andry had believed him, feared this place even though the child was gone and left a young woman instead.
Andry and Brock regarded the rocky formation in silence. As they drifted away Andry looked into her leather bag and found a little bundle of flowers and herbs, tossing it into the water. "That may not be enough if the river-hag follows us," Brock said, still trying to frighten her after all those years
Andry hurried towards the boat, handing Brock several of the bundles of herbs, provisions and ointments she had purchased along with her leather bag which contained charms and special items.
"You took too long," Brock said. "We'll have to spend the night in Azun."
"No we won't," Andry said. "We can still travel for a couple of hours."
"I would appreciate a good roof over our head," Brock said as he looked at the dark sky.
"Looks like more rain."
"We head back as fast as we can, remember?"
"Andry . . . "
"Come on Brock," she said, tossing him an oar.
Brock grunted and started cursing under his breath.
The bad weather did not relent and Brock's mutterings increased with the rumble of thunder. As for Andry she did not complain and ate a piece of cheese and drank her water, watching the trees with indifference. Her arms ached from rowing and she was cold.
"We should switch," Brock said. "I am hungry."
"I haven't finished my food."
"Andry, give me."
Andry handed Brock the bottle and he drank a liberal amount, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"I wonder if she as beautiful as they say, eh?"
"Who?" Andry asked.
"The river-hag. She's supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world a man has ever seen from afar, but then she gets up close and turns old and ugly and drags you to the bottom of the river. What do you think? Beautiful or horrid or both?"
She shook her head.
"What does it matter?"
"Don't be dull. I'm trying to talk to you."
"Talk about something else," Andry said because she knew Brock was trying to scare her with talk of the hag. He'd tormented her with tales of the supernatural since the age of seven.
Soon he would start telling the stories of the men that had been dragged down the river into the hag's clutches. He would tell her how in the old days the priests offered sacrifices of flesh and blood near Samsia's Throne to appease the hag, and how the hag might sometimes give them gifts of fish and gold in return.
"But where would she get the gold?" a younger Andry had asked. "She takes the rings from her victims' fingers," Brock replied. "Look! There she comes!"
And Andry the child would run into her home in fear. As an adult, for all her bravado on dry land, she still feared the hag when they were on the skiff.
"What should we talk about? The water? The fish? The weather? I could be having some beer over at old man Cothlo's tavern."
"And sinning with the bawdy women there too," Andry replied.
"Ah, what do you know about bawdy women?"
Andry did not know much except that even though her mother said such women were bad some of them owned fancy jewels and beautiful embroidered shoes. Andry only wore shoes during the winter and these were ugly and too big for her feet.
Sometimes Andry wondered what it might be like to go beyond Azun, to the great capital-city and wear pearls in her ears and meet handsome men like the young stranger who was beautiful even in his waxen sickness.
Beautiful and far removed from the hare lipped butcher boy of Azun or even Brock with his ugly, crooked nose and messy hair.
"I know enough," Andry said without much conviction. "I've even spoken to one or two of them."
"I'm going to tell your mother," Brock teased.
Andry turned her face away, irritated by his comment, and gasped.
"What is that?" she asked.
Brock frowned, looking in her same direction. He paddled towards the shore and they both disembarked. The reeds whispered as they pushed their way forward and stood still.
"Deserters most likely," Brock muttered.
Two corpses piled on top of each other and left to rot next to the river stared at the grey sky. Both men had their throat slashes and their hands tied. Brock and Andry watched in reverential fear.
"We must go," Brock said.
"Shouldn't we do something? A burial? Their ghosts will be angry."
"Let them. Come, we must go."
"Damn the soldiers. Damn the king's men," Brock muttered.
The trees glided past them, Brock paddling madly while the sky rumbled above. Ill weather. Ill day.
"I'll luck," Andry whispered, thinking of the angry ghosts.
"Damn you for putting me through this," Brock yelled. "I swear, they must be looking for him. Your deserter."
A loud thump startled Andry. She thought they might have hit a rock but before there was a chance to assess the damage the skiff swayed violently, tossing Andry into the water.
The river's pull was strong. Andry swam up, fighting the current and then she felt something, a strong tug. Something was pulling her down. Andry kicked and hit the surface, bobbing up for a breath of air before being pulled down again.
Cold fingers wrapped around her wrist and the water swallowed her scream. She thought of the river-hag, its clammy flesh against her. Or perhaps the angry ghosts, outraged at their unkindness. But when she emerged Andry saw it was only Brock holding her, helping her move towards the shore.
Brock shoved her unkindly onto dry land. Andry rolled onto her back and stared at the sky, her breath shallow. As soon as she was able to breath properly she sat up, scanning the water.
"The skiff," she said.
"Gone," Brock said as he tossed Andry her leather bag.
"The medicine," she whispered, clawing at the bag at once and finding that the carefully packaged bundle was still there. "Praise the gods."
"Praise the gods again. Maybe they'll send us another skiff."
Andry clutched the bag and started walking, her feet sinking in the muddy ground.
"Where are you headed? Azun's the other way," Brock said. "We need to get old man Oteh to take us down river."
"We'd never make it in time. He'll be dead by then. We need to walk home." Brock blinked.
"Are you mad? We have no blankets, no food or drink or . . . "
"My tinderbox is still here and my knife," Andry said holding up her bag. "If we follow the old path we can spend the night at the abandoned inn and if we move fast . . . "
"Andry, there's men near hear. Soldiers."
"Don't be a coward."
"I'm going to Azun."
Brock walked away. Andry watched him for a few moments, wanting to follow and knowing she could not, before heading in the opposite direction.
Andry reached the abandoned inn before dusk and gathered some wood. After several unsuccessful attempts she managed to start a fire and sat before the fireplace.
She wondered how the stranger waiting at her mother's house was faring and whether they might return in time to save him. Perhaps Brock was right and it was futile. Useless.
She fell asleep quickly and dreamt the young stranger was a prince from a far away land. To thank Andry because she saved his life he showered her with gifts and they drifted down the river in a golden barge, beyond Azun and the world she knew.
When Andry woke it was to the rumble of thunder and the hard floor of the inn. The barge and all her other dreams of luxury and happiness had vanished.
There was a noise nearby, the creaking of wood. Andry's hand slipped towards her knife.
She thought of bandits, or even worse, the river-hag sneaking up behind her.
"Andry, it's me."
Brock stepped into the light, dripping of water and splattered with mud.
Andry's heart, which had been beating wildly, grew still.
"You're here," she said, jumping to her feet.
"I thought you'd be dying of fright without me."
"Would not," Andry muttered.
They sat down on the bare, dirty floor and looked at the fire in silence.
"You shouldn't do things like this Andry."
"Like what?" she asked.
"I told you I'm not afraid."
"One day you're going to get hurt doing something stupid like . . . "
"Like saving someone's life?"
"Precisely," Brock leaned forward, giving her a stern look. "That man's a deserter."
"The forest is crawling with deserters."
"So what if he is? Don't we have a duty to help him?"
Brock shook his head. They stared at the fire again and Andry wanted to hit Brock because he was such a selfish, idiotic man but then Brock reached into the folds of his clothing and handed her a salty hardtack.
"I thought we had no food," Andry said.
"I lied," Brock said. "One for you and one for me."
Andry shook her hair and tried to chew the biscuit without breaking a tooth.
Andry dreamt the water-hag sneaked next to her during the night and whispered into her ear, telling her she would gift her a pretty strand of pearls if Andry would allow her a bite of flesh, a sip of blood. But when Andry lifted her head it was only Brock, his body warm against hers.
She gave Brock a hard shove to wake him up and he cursed and demanded that they sleep some more, but he got up eventually and they were back on the road that led home.
They had not walked far from the inn when they noticed three men heading their way. Even though their clothes were muddy and tattered, Andry recognized the crimson outfit of the king's army.
"Ah, the hag take me," Brock cursed. "Let me speak. They'll go away fast."
Soon enough the three men were up close and looking at them curiously.
"Good morning," said one of the soldiers, a tall, wiry man.
"Good morning, sir," Brock muttered politely.
"Could you assist us? We were traveling to Ridra but we've lost one of our companions.
A tall lad, fair haired. Perhaps you've seen him?"
A deserter, Andry thought, recalling Brock's words. For a moment she was afraid he would speak and tell the truth. Brock just gazed at them blankly.
"He might be injured. A bit confused maybe."
"No, sir. It's just us here. Just traveling. To Sota, sir."
The soldier observed them for a moment, then seemed to dismiss them shaking his head and turning towards his companions. But then he turned his attention back towards them.
"River folk, are you?"
"Yes, a good, strong river-boy you are, aren't you? And a girl. Look at that pretty hair."
Andry bowed her head and stared at the ground.
"We could use a guide," the soldier said turning back towards Brock. "Someone to lead us around these parts. We are unfamiliar with the area."
"I'm not a guide, sir. We're just river folk. We fish and we sell the fish at the market. That's all."
"Come, come now. Walk with us some of the way."
"I'm sorry, sir. We're wanted at home."
"We'd like you to come with us."
Another soldier raised a crossbow and pointed it at Brock.
"Be pleasant," the tall soldier said. "It's best this way."
Andry recalled, dimly as if in a dream, the coming of the soldiers upon their home and the disappearance of her father a decade past. Or perhaps these were merely deserters who had turned to robbery and murder. Either way, what lay in Ridra was slavery. They would be sold to the highest bidder. That is, if they did not kill them for the sole sport of it.
"Please, we have done nothing," Brock said, grasping Andry's hand.
"Shut up. Tie them up."
"Oh, sir, please. We beg you."
Brock's voice was a scared whimper, but Andry felt his fingers quickly untangle from hers. A quiet gesture. A signal.
They were river folk but they were not foolish. Growing up together they had developed their own secret codes, their own silent signs. And now the sign was clear for Andry: run.
Brock held his hands up for the soldier tie but then, before the cord could be firmly knotted, his fingers flew into his sleeve and Brock pulled out a knife. The soldier jumped back, startled.
Andry, her own knife tucked inside her boot, elbowed the man approaching her and he stumbled, skidded and fell upon the muddy ground.
They ran. Andry leapt forward with all the might she could muster and rushed through the mud, the trees and puddles and branches. She heard the loud screams of the men but
Brock just yelled for her to keep running. So Andry ran.
She ran until she could not breath anymore and as she leaned against a tree, Brock stumbled into her and they both lost their footing.
"I can't," he said. "I can't."
Then she saw that his eyes were watering and he was clutching the side of his body, blood staining his fingers.
"Brock," she whispered. "Oh, Brock, come. Keep going."
"I can't. I can't walk."
"Yes, you can," she said her throat dry as dust. "Please, you have to."
"It's too far."
"It's not far. We'll go to Samsia's Throne. To the chambers. Yes? It's not too far."
"Andry . . . "
"They won't follow. They can't follow. It'll rain soon and the rain will wash away any tracks. Come Brock. Please, please."
They ran, with Brock half-doubled in pain, and later on they walked, his hand on her shoulder, until they reached the dark silhouette against the dying sky that was Samsia's Throne.
Andry had bandaged Brock's wound by tearing off a piece of clothing from her skirt. Then they sat at the back of one of the small chambers and Andry piled her cape upon Brock and huddled next to him.
"Brock, don't sleep," she said, pinching him.
"Andry, I hate you."
"Fine, fine," she said, pinching him again. "Just don't sleep. Don't. Tell me something."
"I don't want to."
"Tell me anything. Please?"
"Are you afraid?"
"Yes, I'm afraid of the river-hag," she lied, because she was really afraid Brock was going to faint and die; he was shivering and he was very pale and if it weren't for her they would be home. Safe, warm and away.
"Andry, you are so gullible. Remember when I used to make footprints in the mud and tell you the river-hag had come out of the water and into your house?"
"Then you'd run crying to your mother and then she'd tell my brothers and I'd get beaten silly because I scared you again."
"Then when you learnt how to make charms against the river-hag and such you said you were going to hex me and I pretended the hex worked and for a whole day you thought I'd been turned into some kind of animal."
"It was a spider."
Brock shifted and winced.
"You should go ahead without me. They want me. They need to replace the man they lost."
"No, you were right. I am a coward," Brock whispered. "I should have gone to my aunt's home a long, long time ago. But I was afraid they'd take me away, like my brothers. Her three sons, they're all off fighting. But what can you do? The soldiers will come anyway."
"Not this time. Not here," she said. "I promise."
Andry waited until Brock was asleep to make her way out of the chamber and towards the river bank. It was madness, to venture out alone but she did. She knelt by the river and tried to recall the many stories Brock had told about the river-hag. Spells. Magic.
Moonlight and water mingled together. Andry bowed her head and began speaking as well as she could. Her voice was shaking. She spoke to the river.
Andry remained rooted to the same spot even with tendrils of mist coiling and unfurling around her, making everything terrifying and unseen. She sat there and slashed at her own palm, blood staining her knife and then she hurled the knife into the water.
In the darkness the wind whispered and it mixed with Brock's voice inside her head. Old whispers, old muttered stories in the dark and she not understanding all of what the stories meant, yet having memorized each word. She followed the stories diligently.
At one point she thought Brock's voice was eclipsed by another voice, a female voice that was low and steady. It might have been her own voice yet Andry thought it was someone else.
Dawn came and when Andry raised her head, exhausted, she heard the murmur of the water and another murmur. The talk of men.
She did not move, not even when she was able to see them, stepping from between the mist. The soldiers, having successfully found their trail, now smiled and pointed at her.
"There's the girl," one of the men said.
Andry waited, immobile. The men approached but she remained in her place.
Yet there, in the tail of her eyes, some movement. Something pale.
"Come here, you," the tall soldier said, pulling her forward.
Andry bent like a reed, watched him with scared eyes as he tossed her towards another one of the men. Only she wasn't scared of him. Of them anymore. Andry could smell moisture, leaves, mud and something else. Something dank and old.
"Where is the other? Where is the man?" someone asked.
Andry could not speak for there again, in the corner of her eyes, something white. It flitted and danced, between the mist and the water. She knew it. Knew her and it knew her back in turn.
Blood and water and wishes. Brock's nightly fairy tales made flesh. Come to life.
"Are you stupid? Come on, speak."
Danger. Around them and they could not see. Did not seem to see or fear. She feared. She feared what she had done; what she had called forth in her desperation.
At last she heard one of the men gasp, his voice hoarse.
"What is that?"
Andry knew. Andry closed her eyes.
If you can not see her she can not harm you, Brock had said and Andry wanted to believe this part of the story was true.
She felt the man that had been holding her, his hands releasing her and the other yelling something. She closed her eyes and a part of her said she was foolish, that she ought to run. But another part remembered the stories, half-forgotten yet never far from thought.
She clung to the stories.
Andry thought she heard one of the men scream, far away, and then a sudden, loud splash. Then there was nothing.
A drop of water fell upon her head, then another. Rain.
Brock's voice and now she did snap her eyes open as he stumbled towards her.
"Andry, what are you doing?" he asked.
Her voice seemed to have escaped her and she looked up at him, mutely.
"You've been crying," he said and she realized as he touched her cheek that this was true.
The rain fell more steadily.
Andry watched the stranger as he slept, lulled by the medicine they'd brought, and felt Brock watching her at the same time. She smoothed the covers of the man's bed and rose.
"So will he live?" Brock asked, almost casually.
"My mother says he will."
"It was a mighty foolish thing to do."
She left the small hut and sat outside. It had not rained that day and the sun shone for a change.
Andry observed the river and then catching something glitter there stepped into the water. Knee deep she stood and bent down.
It was a ring.
Angry held it in her palm, watching the pretty golden circle with interest and wondered how far she might get with it. Surely farther than Azun, maybe as far as the great capital-city where she could wear pearls in her ears and sail on a barge.
Andry contemplated the ring and the possibilities before tossing it back into the river.
Away it went, dragged by the current along with a bunch of dead leaves and some twigs. When she turned around there was Brock leaning against the door of the hut, looking at her.
Neither of them said anything.
"We need more fire wood," he finally told her.
Andry nodded her head and went towards him, her skirt dripping wet. But the sun was warm and she did not mind.
- END -