Flocked JP 30
Ryan Watt
(11 reviews)
Once Upon A Time... kingdoms in trouble had to wait for a wandering hero to come along and save the ... Show More
Adventure, Comedy, Cross-Genre, Fantasy, High Fantasy
Fairy Tale, Guild, Magic, birds, curses, Champions

Between Breaths

              As the strange trio reached the bridge, Taree tensed as she realized Veri was planning to run again. She, riding on his shoulder, turned her head towards his ear and nipped it slightly.
“I won’t run,” he said, his wont elongating into a sore moan.
You had better not, she replied, coming across to him as a loud, aggressive chirp in his ear. As they turned the corner of the road down from the monastery onto the street leading to the bridge, Taree saw the others and sent out her voice as far as she could. I found Veri and we are coming! He is easily alarmed though, so don’t react right away.
They reached the foot of the bridge. “I can’t. I can’t face her,” Veri began to say. The elder priest pressed his hand upon the un-bird laden shoulder.
A bubble of anger burned in her guts. She would make this man go and speak with his beloved, face the woman he abandoned, whatever it took. She flapped off his shoulder, circling close around his head, jutting out her beak once or twice near his eyes.
“Little one, stop. It is his decision to make to see her or not,” the monk said. Taree swooped at the elder monk and pecked him hard on the forehead, landing on his head and staring down into his face.
“Leave him be. I’ll go.” Veri began to walk on his own, slowly crossing the bridge.
Torias flicked an eye towards them, returning them to the elder Anna who sat on a large stone jutting out from the base of the bridge on their side.
“Anna,” he said calmly, “he is coming back with Taree now. Would you like to talk to him?”
Taree could see Anna tense, and the younger Anna looked up quickly in panic. Don’t let young Anna scare him away either!
“Let’s hear what he has to say, look he comes with a priest even!” Jorinda said, standing real close to the daughter.
The elder Anna stood and turned. The air around them crashed with waves of hot and cold, flowing so violently Taree could not tell which of them produced which fronts.
“Anna? Is that really you?”
“Veri? You… you look so much like my Veri. Surely, it cannot be you.”
“It is. It is. I am sorry. I did not mean to be gone so long. I did not mean to be gone at all.”
Veri’s foot landed on the bridge. His body tensed and his breathing increased until they were not breaths, but gasps, like a drowning man’s. He pulled the foot back, right as Ma Malaya stood, pivoting her body to mirror his. She pulled away slightly.
The long lost love looked at the water off to the side of the bridge and shuddered with sobs. Without stopping, he retook the step and began to cross the bridge. Anna matched him step for step until they were together in the center.
They fell into each other like moon and its reflection upon the water at the end of the night.
“What happened?”
“I… I fell…” the words began to become trapped inside him. He turned and looked down at the river and suddenly Taree could feel, sense, beads of sweat breaking out on his neck. Without warning, he grabbed Anna’s hand and half led, half pulled her towards her end of the bridge, panting again.
“I… fell into the river… that night after you left. The night before our wedding. I was playing my waldzither and as I stood up, my foot slipped. I fell in. I did not mean to leave I promise.”
“It took you forty years to climb out of the river?” young Anna said.
“Yes. I mean, obviously no, but also a little bit yes. When I crawled out of the river, that day of your wedding, I thought it had been a dream. I heard the drums of the wedding procession and I panicked. I thought I had fallen into the river and passed out once I reached shore. At first, when I climbed out, my head hurt, like it should after falling like that. I remembered this strange dream, but that was all I thought it was, a dream. It was only when I realized the wedding was your… granddaughter, that I realized something truly magical had happened to me.” Disdain poured off his pronunciation of the word magical.
“What?” Ma Mayala’s voice pleaded for him to say something, anything, to clarify the confusion and years of anger and fear in her hearts.
“I was taken. By sea-people.”
“Sea people?” young Anna shouted, voice slowly rising with each syllable. “We’re a land locked country!”
“The river?” elder Anna asked, hardly above a whisper.
Taree was relieved to hear that some part of her was open to his tale too.  Her daughter’s outburst had jarred Taree, for she had instantly believed Veri, as soon as he spoke. The daughter’s words had caused her a second of shame for being so gullible. But Veri’s former fiancé, who had more life experience than any of them, was willing to consider it. It soothed Taree’s doubts.
He looked away. He closed his eyes. He scrunched them up tight. He opened them and looked anywhere but at any of the group. Taree suddenly had the image in her head of trying to tap his temple until the story poured out of Veri.
“It was only later, only after I made a fool of myself at your daughter’s wedding, that I began to realize. I talked to people all over town, looking for my family, for my friends. I met with the priest of the monastery who remembered me from back then. He had been a child who remembered my songs.”
“It’s true. I remembered watching him court you, Anna. My friends used to mock Veri, but I secretly loved his songs. I recognized him at once,” the monk said. His smile carried the memory of long passed days, and cast their glow upon the present. “I too had the fears that he was an imposter. However, the monastery has wards against many, many forms of deception. When he crossed the threshold and did not change, I began to trust he was truly Veri.”
Veri shuddered. “Those wards did something to me though. I… I do not… I told you I thought it all a dream. See, I knew when I woke up on the bank, and as I explored town, trying to understand what had happened, that I could recall events happening to me. They existed in a fog in my mind. Unfocused, unclear. There was a beautiful woman. A mermaid. Pearl white hair, bright eyes, thin lips. She was not like you, Anna, yet she was. She felt like you felt, I did not understand. I knew her to be some fantastic being, a mermaid, for she breathed water, and had magic, yet she looked human. She even had human feet, though they each had ribbons wrapped around them, and trailing away from her.
“I thought, when I wandered town, that she must be my nerves of getting married, you know? Showing me another opportunity, but one that still provided me exactly what I wanted from you. That was the you, it was you I was choosing, but in her, I thought. She offered them to me, and gave them to me. But it was a dream. Until I crossed the threshold of the monastery.”
“Then what happened?” Anna asked, trying to hold back the complex web of emotions inside of her. Her heart must surely be vibrating like a plucked waldzither string, Taree thought, whatever that sounded like.
Taree had once watched a traveling musician, with a lute, play at the Three Wings. She perched nearby her as the last note on the last, thickest string of the instrument, remained humming for a long time after she plucked it. She stopped the other strings with her fingers, but not that one. Taree could feel it. It felt like her new friend’s heartstrings had been pulled, pulled so hard they should have broken, but they didn’t.
“The wards removed the cloud, the fog. I remembered clearly. I was gone forty years, although I did not know the exact number of years yet. What I knew was I had been gone. When I hit the water, a mermaid, who had come up stream and stayed for a while to hear my songs, rescued me. She wrapped me in spells. They dulled my mind, my memory. She guided me into loving her, instead of you, because I was so befuddled.”
“I told you! I told you mother that he was awful! That he was a bastard.”
“Daughter, please!” Anna shouted back, her eyes successfully willing her daughter’s mouth shut. “Veri. That’s not your fault. If you were befuddled, then I forgive you.”
Veri stood and turned away. “You can’t.” His words were crisp, curt, and like trembled stones. “Memory clouded or not, I chose those things. I chose to be with her. I was not in a dream. I was living in real time, I simply did not notice that because of her spell. I think that is how I stayed alive. I was only half living, not even half. Even now, with my mind restored, and able to see those times clearly, I do not remember ever taking a breath. How could I? I was underwater. Not in the river, eventually she guided us back to the sea, some distance away, where we were together for most of those years.”
“That is why you never aged,” his once-beloved said. She looked at Torias. “Is that even possible?”
Torias shrugged. “Sounds as logical as many magical things I have encountered.”
“There are stories about the breath of life, reviving those from near death,” Jorinda added. “Maybe this is something like that?”
“Continue,” Anna commanded, with all the edge of a family matriarch, yet a layer of comfort as well. She believed him, Taree could feel it.
“So, I did not know I was gone, because my memory was tricked into not realizing I was gone. It was an adventure, the kind I always wanted, and it was so outside of normal, it could not possibly be real, and the magic helped all of that.”
“Then why did you not explain all of this to me when you realized what happened? When you realized I had been left behind for forty years wondering if you had died or if you had abandoned me!”
“Because I did abandon you! As good as! I had a wife down there, one I chose, even if my mind was clouded. I had a family. I-“ he stopped abruptly.
A family. The pair of words chilled the air.
“You what?” the girl that would never have been his daughter said, her words cut and sharpened into weapons she might soon need to protect her mother.
“Several times, during my time with her, she and I would return here, to these rivers and the lakes in the mountains above. There she would give birth to a child. I had to wait in the shallows, and I did, obediently, never questioning, never thinking to question. She would return with a child. One whose feet were, like hers, not mermaid tails, but appeared human. They wore ribbons around their ankles.
“The seventh time we did this, the seventh time we came to the lakes for her to bear our child, she took longer than usual to have the child. She fell once into a deep sleep. As she did, maybe her magic on me weakened. For I saw the ribbons on her ankles, the ones I had wondered about for so long. I know not why then, as she was in labor, I decided to see. I reached for it and pulled…”
“Veri!” Anna exclaimed. “How could you! You know the tales. You sang me the tale of the girl with the ribbon around her neck!”
“I did not remember that story then. I only knew that I had to know! I loosened the string, which I now realize was seaweed. Long, tough, slippery strips of plant, the kind we use to grow in our undersea garden, and I… I saw…”
“A fish tail?” young Anna said, hooding her eyes and her lips drawing an unimpressed line across her face.
“No. Goose feet. Her lower body transformed into a goose’s lower half.”
Most of the group gasped. Taree felt her heart beat harder. Even younger Anna seemed to be in shock at the reveal.
“She awoke, in fury. But the fury passed as her labor resumed. It was a difficult one, and when the child emerged, I was allowed to witness for the first time, I was relieved that there was no fish tail, no goose feet, no ribbon. The sea-woman, my wife, cried out in anguish, and tried to kill the child. I pulled him away from her. She came at me with her staff, the one she used to cast her spells. Her eyes burned hot enough that the water around her seemed to steam. She touched me with the staff, and then I awoke, on the bank, soaking wet, where I had fallen into the river forty years ago.
“When I crossed the monastery threshold, I remembered all of this. My memories clarified. They became real. I had a wife. I had seven children, although maybe now only six. They weren’t human. And I? What was I? No longer human myself? I am aging now, perhaps more rapidly than normal. But that is why I did not come to you, why I avoided you after my memory was clarified. I had abandoned you. Now I have abandoned my children. I am a horrible man, and I must atone for those things.”
Before Anna could say anything else, Veri stood and walked away. The other monk hurried to follow him, also silent, although he tried to shoot what might have been a consoling look at the women.
Taree stood on the railing of the bridge, frozen again. Had she done well? She had brought them together, but was that the right thing to do? There was no joy for any of them, only pain.
“Mother, I’m…”
“No, it’s fine, it’s fine…” She waved her daughter off. “It’s fine,” she repeated. She signaled for her daughter to help her to her feet. “Thank you all for coming out here. I feel a bit foolish now to drag you across the continent for something so absolutely trivial as a man I could have walked over to at any time.”
“Do not worry. We are happy to have come,” Torias said. “We’re sorry that the news was so… unfortunate… but I am glad it wasn’t some beast mocking your memory.”
“Yes, yes, I think maybe that is better… somehow,” younger Anna conceded. “Let us put you up for the night, treat you to a lavish meal. Is that fair?”  She took her mother’s arm and led her away down the path. “You’re sure?”
“Yes! I am fine,” the matriarch swatted her daughter’s overconcerned hand.
It’s not fine! Taree shouted to those few who could hear her. She flew off to the riverside.
“I’ll go to her,” Jorinda’s voice came distantly. A moment later, Taree could hear the sound of crunching, of careful steps along the steep gravely bank of the river.
It’s not fine.
“What isn’t?”
None of that. Him leaving her. Him leaving his children! None of it. Not even that conversation. They’re walking away! They’re… that’s not how this is supposed to go!
“Oh. I see.” The gravel slushed as Jorinda lowered herself down to sit on the bank beside Taree, who did not look up from the water. “You wanted them to reconcile? To fall back in love?”
Maybe… Hearing it spoken out loud, Taree felt how preposterous it was. This was no tale of love rekindled. He had abandoned her! He didn’t deserve her. And she, she did not need him, like her daughter said. Besides. Even if they had, she doesn’t have long left, does she?
“No, probably not…” Jorinda’s voice cracked as she spoke. Her fingers searched through the gravel for her palm.
So, what do we do? Do we leave them too? Do we leave this unfinished?
“I guess so. What else can we do? The Call is answered, even if the answer is unsatisfying. That’s life sometimes. Not everything in life makes a good story.”
Taree shuddered. She did not like that answer, although she knew it was true.
They were so in love.
“I know. I do feel bad for Veri. I do not think he likes where is life took him. I do think he made choices down there, in the water, but I know that sometimes the magical world choses you. Sometimes you only chose to embrace it in order to survive it choosing you. I think Veri went with the flow… so to speak.”
Taree could sympathize too. She found herself, unaware of the world, unsure how to navigate it, suddenly being forced to navigate it, in a search for her father that took her anywhere but to him. That still did.
Can we, can you and I, try to think of something, anything, we can do tonight to- Taree stopped. A sound in the water stole her attention.
Down below, there was a ripple, like something had recently broken the surface. She could be wrong, but she thought the large shadow swimming around below the surface looked almost human.  Something long and green and ribbon like seemed to flick above the water line for but a moment before it too was gone.
              Once, someone had asked Kess in his Bird of Truth days about the headquarters of the Order of Champions. They had wanted to be a Champion so badly, they had sought out the bird in hopes of learning some great truth that would lead him to becoming a member. Kess had spent a day telling him about the castle and its grounds. None of it prepared him for the sight of the castle rising over the waters of the upper lake as their gondola ascended from the lower lake.
“Thank you for indulging me,” Satu said. Kess knew not to respond, as he was not the one who was indulging them.
“Of course. I too used to make nearly any excuse to ride the gondola. It has been a while now, and I am glad for it again,” Ghiro said. She even had her hat off, holding it lightly in front of her.
The gondola docked with a not too harsh of a jerk. Ghiro replaced her hat, straightened her coat, and nodded to the attendant clerk to permit their egress.
The upper station stood at the end of the large stone paved space connection station, castle, main road, and lake. It was a bare expanse that made the castle look more foreboding. According to the story Kess once told the lad who wished to be a Champion, this area had been a terrible nest of thorn bushes and wild animals back during the days of Berowalt’s curse. The Prince Regent had ordered them all removed not long after he was restored, forbidding them to ever return. The castle would stand free of any trace of the blight.
Kess understood, but he still would have liked a few tasteful shrubs, or some trees along the banks of the lake.
A pair of guards, in green clerk’s livery, opened the front gates for them as they reached them. They passed through the gatehouse and into the castle proper. Ghiro continued to lead them. Had Kess not been riding on Satu’s shoulder, he suspected she would have trailed behind him. There was a tension in her shoulders, a slowness to her gait. He was not sure why. This had been her idea. If she could hear bird speak, he would have tried to tell her. His ability to speak aloud whenever he wanted to was helpful, but it had limitations. He had no capacity for whispering, for example.
Ghiro’s pace increased, and Satu’s did not. He took a chance and said “Alright?” to his ride.
“Yes, sorry. Thinking.”
Kess knew she wasn’t alright. He knew too that he was not going to get a different answer from her. If he thought that entering that library was the first step towards facing his stepmother, the one who killed him, he would be apprehensive, even if he knew it was a good idea. Course, his stepmother was dead, by his own action, so the comparison did not work. He did not know what it must be like to know that the source of all the terror in your life was coming ever closer.
They reached the doors to the library, or so Kess’s recollection from the story he had told that young boy believed. Ghiro’s stopping there gave extra weight. That boy had not lived long enough to reach the Order. He did not survive the two nights Kess sat at his window telling him stories, and never answering the question that the boy did not need to ask: Would he ever achieve his dream? The fever had prevented that, but for two nights he got to imagine such a life with the knowledge Kess had. He went into whatever came next with the knowledge of what it would take to be a Champion.
“Knowledge is strength. Even the worst knowledge can be turned into strength if you let it,” Kess said. That he knew.
Satu took a deep breath, and walked through the doors.
Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 9/3/2017 8:05:37 PM