Through the Black and Back Again;
A Story of Oreyn
Now this happened before the high-Lammers started using unicorn horns like scriv to help their magic along, before they thought they might be able to do the same to the vamps, and grind up their bones like magic dust. And don’t ask me how they get these fool notions anywise, because there’s no answer to that better than, “they’re a bunch of coves, gentry or no.”
This is back when some people were still calling the unicorns by their old Hob name, before the Lammers made it a word you get burned over. They stole the word from us, like they did the rest of our language, and soon hardly no one would even remember that once the unicorns had two horns and were called taji. Back then the Lammers were still working on killing everything about us, from root to branch, burning out our natural magic while their own stinking Lammer-magic fallout was still settling uneasy over the land, and the taji with only one horn were nowt more than inbred sports. They were kept alive because the gentry-dells fancied that having their coaches drawn by a unicorn was somehow better than having goats like any normal person.
So there was this fashion, and the two-horned taji are served up in stews until only the sports are left. Bad tempered ones at that, natural, and it’s always some poor Hobling who gets the unlucky honor of herding the one-horned taji into the fields out behind the Tooth.
But this is all long after Erina Mallen went and ended her family line by opening the Well, and while the fallout was worst over MallenIve (and they deserved it, the fuckers) mostly down here by the coast we were so far from the heart of it that it hardly mattered, and anywise, the wind off the ocean kept the air clean, doctoring the land as good as any old woman with herbs and poultices.
You get the idea. MallenIve’s little mess barely touched us. And wherry Hobs stopped telling their tales about all the empty ships that litter the red dunes out around MallenIve proper, and we forgot that there was a war, and a terrible weapon. We forgot that the Lammers changed us too.
Here then is a story from before, so that we will not forget again:
Nikalli is too old to be tending herd. Normally that’s a job given to Hoblings, and to boys at that. But Nikalli is smaller than she should be, and too quiet and queerwise. Some say she’s scriv-addled, that her ma drank too much bitter while she was carrying her. But mostly, the other Hobs just accept that sometimes there are ones born slow and quiet and small and different, and they leave her alone.
The really old Hobs—the ones who remember the stories, who even speak them sometimes, whispering them to each other in the old tongue—soft as rushes in the vlei—they know what Nikalli is, and they grieve, because if the Lammers find her out, they will kill her quick as they’d kill a rabbit.
No one listens to the talk of old people.
So Nikalli spends her days far from Stilt City and the rustle-splash and wheek and reek of the vleis. Instead she is up on the cliff-side, with the ugly taji, with their stupid lonely horns, with the bird-calls and the wind. She is waiting for the burning she knows is coming, though she is pretending she’s not.
Sometimes she can pretend that she does not see the things she cannot change. This way, she can claim a little innocence for herself, wash herself clean. Today she can cnvince herselfthat she cannot see what is coming, that she can do nothing to change the course of the river. Today she keeps her thoughts on small things, like the stupidity of goats with one horn.
“Unicorn,” she says to the one that is pushing its head against her side. She runs her fingers down the gray and black ribbon-curl of the vast horn. This is what the Lammer-ladies want them to be called, like ancient beasties from the myths and legends of a world they can’t hardly remember. The unicorn bleats, and stares with its slitted yellow eyes. It seems to hardly ever blink.
The word sounds tiny and unreal. “Unicorn,” she says again, louder, as if to make the mountains and the hills and the forests agree. The beast grows bored with the paltry conversation, and wanders back to the rest of the herd. It has already eaten the crumbs of Nikalli’s lunch, and chewed the hem of her raw-silk dress ragged.
The sun is red and low, and the midges whine in clouds about her. The unicorns cropping the salty grass are flicking their tails. It’ll soon be time to take them back to the ken, and to let the serving mistress set her some new task before nightfall. Nikalli clicks her tongue against her teeth, and the unicorns flick their tails harder and pretend not to hear her.
“Stupid,” she says to them, or herself, shaking her head as she trots closer to them. She clicks again, then follows it with a piercing whistle. The unicorns raise their heads. The whistle means come on let’s go there’s mash grains and vegetable peelings to eat if you’ll just follow me kenwise because the only language unicorns understand begins with the growl of the belly and ends with the chomp of teeth. The herd stalks toward her, in that peculiar queer way of goats, where sometimes a Hob is left wondering if the unicorns might not actually prefer the taste of meat, and are just choosing to eat everything else for now.
Nikalli counts them off under her breath, even though she already knows she’s one short. This is the problem – that she knows things. And the things are always true, and they are almost always things she don’t want to know. She counts again. Still short. Nikalli whistles louder this time, like a shriek of a hunting bird.
And there; a crackle of branches, a shadow coming from the edge of the forest where the bushes are low and thick and the trees are fewer. Behind that, the Forest Deep rises, and no one goes in there if they can avoid it. She waits for the unicorn, fat on forest lily bulbs, to come out.
The shape’s all wrong; too tall, too thin. Nikalli shades her eyes.
No stupid lost unicorn, this one. Oh no, not at all. It’s a boy, older than her, old enough to be married already and working his hands down to nothing, and growing bent and broken before he should.
“You’ve lost a taji,” he says and slips his hands into his pockets. He walks right up to her, stops and waits.
“Unicorn.” The Lammers won’t take kind to hearing that other word, that old word.
“Whatever, your fucking goat.” He nods back at the forest. “She’s in there. Won’t follow me out, stubborn thing, and I can’t get close enough to catch her.”
“You were in the forest.” Nikalli touches her hands to her head, to try and stop knowing things she shouldn’t. She makes her voice small as a dovemouse, little and gray and unnoticed. Her head hurts.
“Yeah,” the boy says, and he squints at her. “That a crime? Some mucking House Lammer going to come and throw me in iron for it?”
She shakes her head. “The forest is sick.”
“Oh—it’s that, is it?” He smiles nastily and looks back over his shoulder, once, quickly. “You think you’re safe because you stay out of the woods and stick to the shore like little limpets. The fallout will get you anywise, you know.” He takes a step closer to her, and drops his voice all conversational. “You still drink from the Casabi. Pelimburg idiots.”
And that proves what she already knows; that he’s a MallenIve Hob, that he’s no servant, that his name is Davin Tomis, and that he’s come down to Pelimburg because he knows too.
“That’s right,” he says. “And there’s ill times coming.”
“Stow it,” she says, but the words are small because it’s why she’s up here later than she should be, because she doesn’t want to smell the burning. Smell the way it will come across Stilt City and swallow up homes and families like fire eating the wheat stubble after the harvest, leaving the ground clean and black.
This is her curse, to know, and to know she can do nothing.
“The worst of it will be over now,” Davin says. “You can look.”
Nikalli leaves the unicorns behind and walks across the meadows and fields to where the stone kens of the Great Houses squat. She follows a little bridle path that winds its way to the cliff face. Even before she reaches Pelim’s Leap, she can see the clouds roiling off the distant spur of land across Pelimburg’s harbour.
The wind has to change yet. For now, the smoke from the fires is spreading out across the sea. A strange queer storm, it will blow itself out over the water and rain soot and ash over the green glass ripples.
Even though the knowing was already in her head, the it punches her like a ruffian-cove’s fist in a street-fight. Tears stick in her throat like gluey salt porridge. Nikalli makes her hands into small fists and tucks them into the pockets of her overskirt. She lets the wind that rush-tumbles about the cliff edge sting her eyes all deep desert dry.
“There was nowt you could do,” Davin says, and claps one hand on her shoulder. “You can’t stay here now, anywise. That’s why I came to fetch you.”
It’s because of her. Or the others like her. Why only some of the Hobs have turned queer under the falling taint of the wild magic Erina Mallen released, she don’t right know. It don’t matter matter in the end. What matters is that they are not allowed, death-sentenced by the high-Lammers, and hunted down, flushed out.
This is what they’ve done today, and she had no words big enough to warn her family, her people. “I need to go back,” she says.
“For what? You’ll just make yourself sick and sorry.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“You know well as I do that it’s not part of the story, you don’t go back.” He waits, tightening his fingers on her shoulder, and Nikalli is grateful because it helps. It hurts, and it keeps her standing. “I dunno how far ahead you see, but by now you should know that we leave, we head upriver. There’s a wherry we catch.”
She shakes off his hand, and turns away to follow the bridle track down the slopes toward the town. It’s a long walk to Stilt City, through the two halves of Pelimburg, over the Casabi River, and she knows she don’t have time nor future to waste, but she’s going anyway.
The unicorns can find their own way home now. Or not. It don’t matter.
By the time the pair of them reach the vleis of Stilt City, the winds have turned and the air smells of burning. Meat and wood, hair and reeds, and over it all the marshy reek of still water and sewer waste. The air is full of wailing, and the sounds sob higher and lower, in time with the gusts that rattle loose roofs and slam broken doors.
Nikalli leaves the other Hobs to their misery, cat-stepping neat between them and making her way to her own ken. Her parents are dead, her cabin-ken on its stilts nothing more than a charred-out hovel. The wooden platform creaks when she puts a foot on to it.
“This is a stupid idea,” Davin says from behind her. He’s stayed on the bridge pathway.
Nikalli says nothing. They are dead, but she still wants to see them, to give them some kind of goodbye. This shape, this is her da. She can’t even cover his body. It’s this that makes the bubble of sticky tears burp up from where she has been keeping it down. She sobs. Standing alone in her ruined house, her face washed dirty. She makes ugly noises, she chokes. She jams her fists in her eyes and presses them into the softness there as if this will bring her da back.
Shaky and empty, she lowers her hands and makes herself look again. There, curled in one corner is another body. This must be her da’s wife. Her own mam went addled years ago, after the war. She spoke to no one, wore no clothes, and finally one day she walked out and left.
Her da remarried a while later, and along came Nikalli’s sister.
There should be another corpse, smaller than the others. Perhaps she is burnt into one shape, melded back with her dam. Nikalli walks closer to check, but her step-mam’s corpse is lonely as all dead things.
“Help me,” she says, looking back at where Davin waits.
He shakes his head. “Don’t go bring more heartache on yourself. Dead is dead, and we’ve a wherry to catch.”
“No.” Nikalli walks out the ruined house and to the edge of the platform. She looks over the edge at the waving reeds and the silvery black water, filled with tiny midgefish and the hidden sounds of birds. “Merrow!” It is not the loudest her voice will go, and it is a scratchy shout, hardly used.
There is no answer. “Merrow!” Louder this time, with force, with the need to make it true.
A sound a sob a squeak a something that could be her sister’s terror and the world remakes itself.
“You can’t do this.” Davin makes no move to help, and Nikalli supposes he cannot, that the things he knows stand too much in his way.
She don’t bother answering, just lowers herself over the edge and drops into muddy water that splashes up to her thighs. “Merrow?” she says again, softer.
“Nikki,” says a little voice, a voice that has lost everything before it even got the chance to know what it had. Her half-sister is curled up, wet and black with mud and soot, on a floating mess of reeds and weeds.
Nikalli lifts her and wades to the bridge path. She holds the girl up, and, sighing and scowling all the while, Davin takes her and then holds out a hand to help Nikalli from the vlei.
“Wait here,” Nikalli tells Merrow. Her ken is in ruins and there will be no chance of retrieving neither hers or Merrow’s wrapping blanket—the first birth gift of all Hoblings—so she steals one from an abandoned home, whispering sorries to the walls.
She sets Merrow on her hip, and winds the long silk wrap about them both, knotting it over her chest, tying her half-sister close to her. The material is dyed red, and under the reek of smoke there is still the must of raw silk and the dry whispery smell of the herbs from the packing crate. The smell of safety and family – the first thing a Hobling learns in its cradle.
“We can’t waste more time,” Davin says. “I’m walking blind here.”
Somehow the wherry is waiting, no Sharif see them board, and the wherry Hobs of The Flying Fox welcome them, take their coin and ask no questions.
The trip passes numb, and Nikalli’s words grow smaller, and lodge like little stones in her throat, sand in her eyes. She rocks Merrow, and does not answer her childish questions.
“You fucked up,” Davin says. Nikalli is sitting with Merrow near the head of the wherry, watching the water slide brown and gold around them while she combs and braids Merrow’s hair. She does not look up at him.
“Don’t blame yourself for the fire,” he says, and sits down. “That weren’t to do with you. They weren’t out hunting you, but some dreambringer.”
Nikalli nods. A dreambringer with nightmares caught in its hair, a monster that destroys everything it touches. How is she any better? She could see the future coming, even if she didn’t make it happen. She knows this, she also knows that soon the Sharif would have come looking for her, and then the next fires would be her fault.
“You still fucked up, though.” He jerks his thumb at Merrow. “Going back for her. You changed the order and now I can’t see for shit. The future’s gone all black.”
And there’s the problem with knowing the future the way they do. High-Lammer Saints see a million and one paths to take to reach the future – dreams and visions. But people like them, Davin and Nikalli, it’s not like that at all. There’s no choice, no wrong paths or harder ones. It’s more like they have better eyesight than everyone else, so they see further. They can’t change what they see. Just know.
“I’m off in the black,” Davin says, not caring that Nikalli says nothing. “I’m hoping if we carry on as if nowt happened, we’ll get back on the future.” He sniffs, then stands. “We’re going to hop off at Little Bridgeton, and we’ll be there in half a day. So get yourself ready.”
Nikalli pauses in her braiding and looks up. “We’re not going to MallenIve?”
“Not bloody likely.” Davin squints. “How far ahead do you see? Normal-like, I mean.”
“Not far.” And now not even that. Like Davin says, they’ve been shut into darkness, just putting one foot ahead of the other and hoping they don’t fall off the cliff-edge, but Nikalli don’t care. She’d give up her future again, glad as can be, just to save Merrow. There was no way she could have left her.
Little Bridgeton is a bare scraping of a village, set in the crook where Dryriver meets the Casabi.
The Dryriver is wide and brown like the Casabi, but shallower still, and little wooded islands cut through it. The sides are thick with low bushes, dark green against the flat brown plains that stretch off to the east.
Overhead the sky has gone black and yellow even though it’s barely midday.
“Storm’s coming,” Davin says. “We’ll hole up til it’s over, get supplies, and leave in the morning.” He nods at the river as they walk away from the dock, through the dusty red roads. “It’s full now, rainy season, you know. Come winter it’s just sand and shrubs. Dry as bones. Just shows the brains of your high-Lammers—calling it Dryriver.” He snorts.
“Does it have another name?”
He shrugs. “Maybe. An old name, but I don’t know it.” He sounds angry with himself about his lack of knowledge. This is what the Lammers have done to us, torn out the roots of our culture, stamped it out, burned it out; they have destroyed our tongues and memories.
The sky rumbles, making Nikalli jump. Merrow burrows her head against Nikalli’s shoulder and starts whimpering.
“It won’t do you no real harm.” Davin grins. “A bang and a flash and a bit of a growl. It’s pretty, like firecrackers on Long Night.”
Nikalli don’t believe him, but even as the first fat rain drops begin to patter down into the dust, turning the roads to red mud, Davin is leading them to an inn. It’s called the The Hare’s Rest and inside it’s dry and stuffy and smells of tobacco and poisonink and tea and beer and people. They rent a small room. “You sit tight here,” Davin says. “Order food.”
And then he’s gone.
“Where’s mam?” Merrow asks as Nikalli sets her on the bed. “When we seeing her?”
“Your mam’s busy,” Nikalli whispers and strips the travel-grimed clothes off the Hobling. “She told me to watch you.” She wraps the little girl in a blanket from the bed and goes to wash the clothes.
Davin doesn’t come back til morning. “Rise and shine, sweethearts,” he says. “We’ve a nilly and a cart, and were leaving.” Nillies are cheaper than unicorns, because the Lammers have cut off their horns. They use them like trophies, or grind them to dust and put them in their stir-porridge. Something like that. Even so, a nilly will cost a fair bag of coin.
Nikalli wonders where Davin’s money comes from. Is he striking from the shopkeepers, pilfering bags of coin from gentry? Might be that it’s not her magic that will get her killed, but something as stupid as being caught as the associate of some light-fingered ruffian-cove. She sighs. It’s not as though there’s a home for her to go back to. Instead she sits quiet and waits until the cart is well-loaded. “Where are we going?” There’s enough food and leathers of water to last days, if not weeks.
“Place I know.”
Nikalli chews at her lip, irritated, but gets up on the cart, and hugs Merrow close. Davin clicks at the nilly, which tries to bite him before finally ambling off. Davin walks casual as can be alongside, with a willow switch in hands, whistling, and swishing at the caked mud.
The journey east seems to go on longer than forever. They pass a few small villages, nothing more than a huddle of white-washed stone huts and a well-point, where Davin refills their water sacks and trades for vegetables, but that soon dwindles to the rare farm.
The farmers are dark, weather-beaten, stooped. They watch the travelers with wary eyes, their dogs growling on strained leashes.
Nikalli finds herself missing even these unfriendly coves. They are in an endless land of Hob-high grass, red soil, scrubby trees, and empty sky. She feels smaller than a froglet in a salt pan, and as out of place. “This place we’re going?” she says as Davin brings the nilly to a halt.
“What about it?”
“I should know about it, shouldn’t I?”
Davin shrugs. “By now. Everything still black for you?”
Nikalli glances at Merrow, asleep in her wrap, and nods.
“Shite and buggery.” He lets the nilly off to graze, not bothering to hobble it. Here in the wilds, it will stay close. They’ve seen herds of buck which stare at them and chew thoughtful as old men, but no lion or the smaller spotted lioncats.
And no spyhnx.
Nothing out of the ordinary at all. “Did the fallout not blow here?” Fallout. It is a Lammer word, but it will do. The Hobs have never had a word for this thing the Lammers brought with them, with their wars. Nikalli steps down to help with setting up their small camp, and she starts by gathering all the sticks she can find. Fire is their first defense.
Davin shrugs. “We’ve not seen much sign of it out here. But it has come down. Just didn’t take, like seeds in bad soil.” He stands up straight, and taps at the side of his nose. “Magic follows river courses, and we’re in the dry.”
She has no idea how he knows that, but somehow she believes him. It sits right in her head, like discovering a truth.
“Nothing here other than a couple of seasonal rivers.” He points further to the east. “We’ll hit the valleys and foothills soon enough, and then we’ll find the Reaper. Once we’re there, we’re home free. Just about.”
Reaper. She knows the name, but only from tales. It is a river so far to the east that it is not real. Is that how far they have gone? She shivers, feeling her heart stretched like a rope between two posts. She’s bothered by home free. Home is where you lay your head to sleep, Nikalli remembers hearing the older Hobs say, but it’s more than that. It’s family and friends and safety. She shakes her head and doesn’t bother to tell Davin.
That night, she hears the coughing roar of lions and cannot sleep. She opens her eyes and waits for the shadows to turn into shapes. Davin is sitting watch by the fire, his face more tired than she has seen it, his eyes shiny in the firelight. And then she feels it, like waking up early in the dark and watching how the light seems to fade in, sneaky as a hunting cat. And she almost knows. “We need to pack up now,” she whispers, so as not to wake Merrow who is sleeping warm against her.
Davin nods slowly. “Seems like.”
It’s several days later before they finally reach the banks of the Reaper. The land has changed, grown greener and hotter, and Nikalli’s clothes are pasted to her skin with sweat and grime. Merrow cries all the time, a broken-hearted sob. “Mam,” she says, over and over, and Nikalli can do nothing but jig her up and down, even though her arms ache from the weight of the child.
She gets down from the cart. “Come, Merrow-my-love, it’s a river. A proper one.” And she can feel the magic pulsing underneath it. Strange that her whole life she has grown up with the throb of wild magic underfoot and never noticed. It’s only after trekking through the drylands that she has felt the difference. Each step across the dry pulled at her, weighed her body down. Now she is like a dandelion seed, and she feels certain she could rise with a gust of wind.
“It’s good, yeah?” says Davin, catching her eye. He’s smiling, and the strained look is gone from his face. “We’ll need to ford, but we’ve built a bridge further down.”
There are dark boulders in the mud-coloured water, and one of them moves, raising its huge head, flicking tiny ears. “Oh!” Nikalli presses one hand to her mouth. “Riverhorses-”
“No.” Davin scowls. “We better move. Them’s nixes.”
The riverhorses have been changed, turned magical and carnivorous by the fallout. Nikalli has heard stories of how they will drag a man screaming into the water, and eat him live, tearing chunks of meat from his bones while the water turns red all about him. Her heart skips, and her skin goes fever-clammy. Nikalli keeps a tight grip on Merrow’s arm, and pulls her away from the scrubby bank.
“They move fast,” Davin adds. “On water and land.”
Nikalli shivers, and herds Merrow back to the cart, high up and away from the ground. She wants to be as far from this magic-tainted herd of nixes.
The nilly pulling their little cart is tired and hoof-sore, and they travel slowly. There’s a path now that runs along the river, and that makes the going easier, but Nikalli knows that Davin is scared, and she knows why. The nixes are following. They’re not chasing them, not yet, just ambling downriver, keeping their distance and watching with their black eyes. Even the nilly is spooked, and it’s about as magical as a handkerchief.
“We set up camp as far from the river as we can,” Davin says. They’re both of them uncertain, their future is still gray, dark in patches. While Nikalli is glad to not know if this is the hour of her death, she is also scared by that. Sometimes knowing what’s to come is all that gets a body through it.
Night falls, warm and black and loud. Frogs and crickets boom and twitter and trill and chirp and buzz and shriek. Nikalli sits shivering by the fire, even though she is not cold. Merrow sleeps fitful, sobbing and restless. She’s feverish now, calling for water and for her dam in her sleep. All Nikalli can do is dampen cloths from the water sacks and lay them against Merrow’s skin, give her little sips to soothe her.
All around them, the future grays and shifts. Every crack of a twig, every sighing rush of moving grass makes both Davin and Nikalli jumpy.
“Are they coming?” she asks. The future is grey, looming. Something ill is coming her way, but she cannot see the shape of it.
“I don’t kn—I think…” he falls silent, and around them the night crackles.
Grass swishes on the edge of the little clearing they have made, and Davin gets to his feet, a bronze knife in his hands. It glints wicked in the fire light. In a flick of a mouse ear, Nikalli has Merrow in her arms. The girl doesn’t wake, still talking in dream-fevers.
A face peers at them. A round face, girlish, dark and brown as the Casabi in summer. The girl’s eyes are ivory. “You,” she says to Davin. “Fool.”
Davin slumps his shoulders, breathes out a long sigh. “Shite, you had me thinking there was nixes coming.”
“They are,” she snaps. “Move!”
Nikalli snaps her arms tighter around Merrow. They leave everything; the fire, the cart, the nilly. The dark girl flits through the tangled bushes that lead down to the river-bank, darting sure foot and Davin follows her, huffing and crashing. Nikalli can feel his terror, and adds her own as she stumbles after him. Merrow is milling-stone heavy, weighing her down and making her slow.
They’re heading to the river.
The girl stops on the bank, and hangs on to a branch of a nearby bush to stop herself from falling into the black waters. “Tell her,” she says to Davin.
“We need to cross,” he says.
“I see.” She doesn’t really. The nixes can swim better than they can. Distantly she can hear crashing as the nixes barrel through the undergrowth. They run faster than she thought they could.
“Once we’re on the other side, there are safe places we can hole up until the bastards give way.” He’s jabbering, speaking so fast the words slide into each other. “But you have to tell the river your sins.”
“You can’t get in the water dirty—just—just watch me.”
The girl is already speaking to the water in a language liquid and dark. It bounds and clicks against stones, trills and ripples. Then she dives in with a seal’s grace and barely a splash.
Davin slides closer to the bank. “Three stolen nillies, a handful of brass from a purse, and—and—oh fuck, an apple or summat. I can’t remember.” And with that he lets go and splashes loud.
Nikalli can just make out the two dark heads bobbing in the moonlit water. With a deep breath, she hoists Merrow higher and truly looks at her for the first time since she hauled her out away from that burned-out ken. She sees her da’s liquid brown eyes in Merrow’s thin little face, his heavy dark brows, her step-ma’s narrow nose and small sweet mouth. Nikalli looks on her sister-half, and knows that Merrow is all she has left of her family.
She says to the river, “I let my family die,” and careful as she can, with one hand still holding on to the branch she eases herself into the water.
It’s not cold, and not warm. The river feels like sea-silk and smells of fish and pondweeds. Her feet sink, and mud oozes between her toes.
The nixes burst through the bush and tumble to the river banks, their massive jaws open, ivory teeth glinting.
Nikalli strikes out, swimming in a one-armed dog-paddle. Merrow’s head keeps slipping under the water. She can’t look back, not even for a second.
The nixes are waiting on the river bank, not following. Somehow, this is worse still. What is in the water that even nixes are scared to follow her across? Something touches her leg, brushes it, and Nikalli tries to scream and chokes on river water. Merrow is wide awake now, her eyes frightened, she mewls, her chubby fingers tangled in Nikalli’s hair. She will drown them both.
It’s impossible to swim. Finally, there comes from behind them the sound of the nixes lumbering heavy as boulders into the river, and Nikalli feels her heart go tight and small and then just stop.
There’s no point in trying to swim.
Again, the brush of skin beneath the water, and now something tugs at her heavy clothes, and the waters come rising, or perhaps she is sinking, and then she is dragged under, her hair streaming up like weeds grasping for the surface.
Her eyes are wide open but she can see nothing.
Hands all around her, and Merrow is plucked from her and then she is dragged, faster than she believed possible, through the silty waters, and up up up to the air.
She sputters when her head breaks the surface. She shakes water from her stinging eyes, and coughs up river silt and stomach bile. Her arms are empty and she is on the far bank. Davin reaches a hand out to her. “Come on,” he says. “You’re safe, or near as can be.”
“You can’t go back,” he says. “You’ve lost her.”
Nikalli turns, splashing back out toward the middle of the river, but Davin grabs her shoulder and pulls her back. “They’ve got her,” he says. “And they don’t give back what they’ve taken. Leave it be.”
“What—taken?” She tries to shake him off, but Davin is stronger than her, and he hauls her out the river with iron arms.
“Hurry,” says the dark brown girl. “The river spirits are hungry.”
“Look,” Davin says. And there, sleek dark heads are bobbing, their ivory eyes and teeth like seed-pearls glinting in the moonlight. They grin and splash, wide tails flicking water in sprays of silver. The nixes in the water head upriver at their sight. And then they are gone, and only the swimmers are left behind.
“Fish-people,” says Davin in a whisper.
Nikalli has never seen fish-people before, never even knew they existed. They circle the middle of the river, diving one after the other, until finally one surfaces with a bundle in its arms.
“Merrow!” It is only Davin’s grip keeping her back, and kick and bite and struggle as she might, he will not let her go, not for love nor brass.
“You can’t have her,” he says in her ear, holding her tight against his chest, locking her in place and ignoring the blood she’s drawn on his forearm. “But she’s safe, safer than she was, at any road. She’s be right as rain with them, never get ill nor old. They’ll make her well again, as the river changes her.”
The fish-people hold Merrow above the water, and they gather around the soaked bundle, whistling and piping to each other. They stroke her with their webbed hands, smile with fish-sharp teeth.
“We must go,” says the girl, and her voice is full of aches and longing.
“Nikalli?” Davin says it soft in her ear. “Come now, it’ll turn out all right, you’ll see. You can come visit her. Alia will show you.” He points to the dark girl, who sighs and stills. “One of them’s my granddam,” she says.
Nikalli looks back at the river-people, at their fish tails bright and shining under stars, their faces smooth as pebbles, with not a wrinkle to share between them. She has lost Merrow as surely as if she’d left her to starve or drown in the reeds under the old burned ken. She has lost her to magic and to the queerness of the fallout the Lammers brought down on their world. They have taken everything from her, because of magic, one way or another.
She does not think she will want to cross this river again, but if she does she will confess to murder in her heart, that the next Lammer she sees she will put a stone blade through their eyes and watch them bleed out black into the hungry earth.
The future spreads out golden-bright ahead of her, like the coming of lightmans after a long dark night, and she can see clear as new-blown glass the shape of her coming days. There is blood already spilled, and she cannot change it. Or perhaps she will not.
Choosing not to change her future, to walk clear-eyed into what she knows is coming, that is also a choice, Nikalli finally realizes. She turns away from the family she was always meant to lose, and lets Davin lead her into a new world.
And that’s how stories go, always twisting back to the pattern like water finding the paths of old riverbeds. There’s no getting out of it. Lammers have their own fancy word for how stories unroll themselves. They say it’s fate, that it’s their destiny. But what they don’t know is that even if the end of the story stays the same, we can still shape the way we get there, if we’re willing to walk into the dry, far from the river course.
We tell the stories, and we are the stories.