The River’s Monster

Prompt: Don’t believe the words of a water spirit. They can never be trusted. written 5 February 2021

In a particular forest, on a particular morning, wanders a man who once had a purpose. Long ago, when the green of his cloak was still as bright as the leaves around him, he had a quest that he has since forgotten. Now, he searches for nothing.

When he reaches the edge of the forest, he will come across a river, and more importantly, a spirit within. He has learned a long time ago not to trust water spirits. They spout lies more often than not. But even so, he could usually learn from them.

Her voice rose over the sound of the water, drawing him in even though he knew better. Warily, he approached, telling himself to look for and focus on her webbed hands and feet. She was, simply put, an ethereal beauty. Her pale hair flowed down her back like the river, her skin a nearly-scaled sunlit blue. He dared not look in her eyes, knowing their beauty would rob him of his caution.

Her song changed to words so fluidly it was impossible to tell the exact point where one stopped and the other started “Won’t you sit with me, traveler, and rest your weary feet in my waters?” she crooned

“You are kind, spirit, but I cannot join you. I must be moving on.” he replied, keeping his feet away from the rocky banks.

“Are you on a quest, dear traveler? Might I aid you?” she leaned forward from where she sat.

“No quest, lovely spirit.” he answered. “Just travel.”

She flashed a pointed smile. “Have you no home to return to? No lover or parent or child?”

A chill ran up his spine, long-forgotten memories struggling to return to him. They did not succeed. “I did not say that.”

“Then why do you deny my hospitality?” she fretted. “Will you not at least give me your name?”

He nearly laughed at her carefully placed trick. How many times had he been asked to give up his name? How long was it until he had forgotten the word these creatures so longed to know? “I have no name to give you, I am afraid. I can only offer you a fair trade: the news I carry from afar for the story you will tell to make me stay.”

She frowned, her lips the color of damp stones. “You seem confident you know my motivation. What if my story is spun to send you far away?”

he bowed politely. “My apologies, beauty. Your offer of hospitality merely informed my estimation.

She preened as she pretended to sulk. “Tell me your news, traveler, and we will have a deal.”

He told her of the war in the western kingdoms, of the scholars’ discoveries on the mainland. He spoke of treaties between man and fae and scuffles between fae and spirit. His news spanned the world, and he spoke until the sun was high in the sky and his voice grew hoarse. When he was done, he sat down cross-legged in the grass. “It is your turn, graceful spirit.”

She rose with a smile, and lifted her hands. “In the great forest at your back, sleeps a great beast of fur and tooth and claw.” Water followed her gestures, painting a mesmerizing picture of all she said. “He wakes but once a year, on a warm summer night, when the sky is clear and open. When all the creatures of day are asleep, the stars will wink out, and those who sleep in sunlight will heed the warning and follow my river out of the cover of the trees.”

He had been right. She spun a tale to inspire fear of the forest, her waters a beacon of hope.

“But the beast is ancient.” she continued, and he sat up, surprised. “It knows the pattern and it will creep through the tall grass to my river bank. It is dark, and the beast is dark, and not even I can see him. I can feel him, though, when he steps his foot in my waters. Some years, he persuades me to allow him to hide in my domain. Some years, I try to drown him.”

The water she manipulated splashed violently, thrashing against a vague, massive thing that hunched like a bear, but seemed to have the mane of a lion. He did not move, hardly dared breathe.

“Regardless of my actions, the beast begins his hunt, and by the time the stars return, my domain runs red with spilled blood.” her hands fell, and the water returned to its place.

He did not speak for a long moment. “Tell me, clever spirit. Do you wish to drown me?”

For the third time she smiled, this time a vicious, primal grin. “Is my tale a woven trinket or a warning? Make your choice carefully, wise traveler.”

He returned the smile as he met her eyes, rose, and left

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