In the Shadow of the River

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is actually the longest completed story I've ever done... sad but true.
This was originally written for a magazine competition; the title was "Hope springs Eternal". But after writing part of it started becoming wayyy too long... so I didn't.

Submitted: February 24, 2009

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Submitted: February 24, 2009

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“Drusiel, Drusiel,” the stream called, a mockery of what used to flow through her valley. “Come, find me, before it dies; come, come quickly, before you die.” Its voice was like quicksilver, elusive yet so beautiful, the voice of the land which she did not understand, and though she knew it was just an illusion she longed to submerge herself into it and sate her dusty, cracked throat.

So she did, dropping her mage-tools and diving into it the way she used to dive into the springs back then, before the drought. And she was in, letting the cool liquid splash over her face and slide over her increasingly thin form. Looking up at the barrier separating the dream from harsh, dry reality, she chose to remain—for now, for as long as she could—in the golden light-shadows of underwater.

But reality would not relinquish its grip on her, and the way she had known she would have to leave the water in the evening, she now knew that her time was not yet done, and reluctantly, she stood.

For a split second feet pressed against clammy mud, and the top of her head broke through the surface of the shallow rill; then she awoke into the night-cooled grass and black pinprick-starred sky.

She found she was standing, and lay down again, calming her weary, racing heart and trying to forget the feel of water yet at the same time trying to engrave it in her memory. Turning on her side to face the serene form of her sister, she watched the sleeping child—she was so young, yet already so old, so distant, it seemed to Drusiel. But now, for these few hours at least, I am older than her.

They had always thought more of Elpis, even though they had favoured Drusiel; Elpis was more cunning, more naturally intelligent, better with life: and above all, Elpis could speak with the Tree.

Drusiel could only talk with animals. And every mage could do that. They had always said, oh, but you have talent, as if that made things better.

Because Elpis could talk with the Tree, and that made her special.

And now Elpis was their hope. Because only she could know where streams of water ran, deep within the earth, and only she could call them forth.

As for Drusiel herself—well, she was only a bodyguard. And bodyguards did not feel.

So thinking, she leaned her back against the rough wood of a tree—a pine, like the Tree—and kept watch over the sister she had once loved so much.

***

She knew what she had to do. So she stepped out of her dream.

“I am awake, Drusiel,” she said, sitting up; “I dreamt of water again.”

“Let’s go, Elpis; if we do not find it soon the Tree will die.” She did not speak her thoughts, the girl knew them as well as her own.

“Can we- can we go by the route passing by the old stream?”

“Certainly—but why?”

“I think… I think there is something there.”

Drusiel shrugged; it made little difference to her. She stood and whispered into the sky. “Zephyrus!”

A beating of wings answered her as a brown-plumed hawk descended to land on her now outstretched arm. No water yet, it said, quivering its feathers to keep balance. I continue my search.

Don’t go yet. Could you lead us to the Tree? My sister says she thinks there is something there.

Let us go then. The bird leaped into the sky, helped by Drusiel’s upward thrust of the hand; this way, it added, projecting clearly so even Elpis could understand.

“I wish I could do that,” Elpis said enviously, glancing up at Zephyrus who was now just a sepia-black silhouette against the harshly blue aether and slowly walking after her sister.

“You can speak to the land. Isn’t that enough?”

“It is, but… sometimes I can’t help, you know, doubting. Like what if I’m not really speaking to the Tree, but it’s just my own imagination? I mean, they never do anything that makes me sure.”

“If you weren’t really speaking to the Tree, then you would be like those who are unbound to it—you would live, even though the tree dies.”

“But then I wouldn’t really be able to talk to the Tree, and then I’d just be lying, wouldn’t I? Then I wouldn’t be able to save it. And then you would all die.”

The older girl stopped and waited for her sister to catch up, hastily telling Zephyrus to slow down. “You’re not lying, Elpis,” she said, bending down to carry her like how she used to, before all this. “Look, you’re so light, and you’re as tired as the rest of us. You’ve been bound to it, and that’s why you can speak to the land.”

“But supposing…”

“You are special,” Drusiel murmured, no matter how much it hurt her to say that, turning to follow the hawk down the parched trail; “you are hope.”

And as she walked, she fervidly hoped that she believed what she said.

***

Her countenance was not angry, nor frustrated, but sad and old and weary, and maybe even scared, as she gazed at the dry earth. River, why do you run no more?

I have run dry; my springs from which I come have waned, and the Tree, too, will wither.

Drusiel was watching from aside; she sat in the Tree’s shadow, brushing a hand against the craggy bark and imagining that she, too, could know nature’s voice.

The shriveled spines of the Tree that littered the ground was each a study in colour and shade, filled with a fragile, exquisite beauty. Just above her hung tired branches, and again she remembered the life they used possess, but somehow the darkling scene before her eyes now was equally alluring.

It was the beauty of death that held her, the death of her valley which she did not even know.

If only, she murmured to herself in the secret chamber of her mind that few saw. If I could hear, too.

You have me, Zephyrus said, sounding somewhat offended. And you have Tertiarus and Istra and Wolf.

But I don’t have the Tree. I don’t have her. I don’t even know her. What kind of sister am I?


You are-
the bird started, but Drusiel stood and shook herself out and was gone, a fleeting rushing shadow, a raptor.

Come back!

She didn’t answer, and as Zephyrus launched himself after his friend, Elpis stood motionless as her heart wept.

And the girl walked into the barren riverbed.

***

Come back, Drusiel, please, he pleaded even as he knew it was futile. He knew her well, and he knew she would be hiding. But this time was different.

ELPIS! She screamed, a streak of black, diving from above him to below, where he glimpsed the little mage standing with her knife to her chest.

Too late, they both knew, as time stood still.

The haunting, unmistakable shade of ruby bloomed, and the first drops of blood met the earth.

Then the world unfroze and Elpis’ lifeblood stained, soaked, the once-dry land.

Then the water came, a wondrous Fury of salvation and deliverance, a tidal wave of perpetual, aching, heart-wrenching love; it was too quick, too powerful to see except as a cascade of an effervescence of starlight and shadow.

It was a heart being willingly torn out for love.

The wave crashed over the small crumbled figure, carrying it away, and as quickly as it came, the river calmed.

And Drusiel was left on the riverbank watching her sister die as the water swelled around her and liquid hail fell from the sky.

***

Days had passed, then weeks, then moons; autumn had come and passed and then winter, and now spring, almost a full year after the day—or so they said—her sister became a naiad to save the valley.

Even in death my sister’s legacy has overshadowed mine, Drusiel brooded. But she deserves it.

And at last she dared to slide into the water, not in joy but in anger, relieving the last moments if only to punish herself and maybe, in some perverse way, her sister. She came to find silence in the gently shifting shadows of the river, where perhaps solitude might numb her sorrow.

Instead she found more than that as the current ran its trailing fingers across her skin and through her feathers as if smoothing her into perfection.

Somehow she knew she had found a well of love itself, the love that death could not hold down; or perhaps it was in some way the love that had found her.

If death could not hold it down, how could she?

She felt the river’s murmur crying of forgiveness given, of a peace that soothed her battered, broken heart at last; in the stillness of the river was a million messages, emotions each a shade different from the next, all singing of love and redemption.

Finally something in her broke, and was remade.

And the wings on her back sprang forth, no longer useless, no longer just a mark of the eagles; they stretched wide, and wingtips brushed the shores, just. She turned her head, drifting as she was in the spilling water, and realised for the first time her own beauty.

She soared, immersed in living water.

She felt the passion flow into her, bringing hope, bringing healing, pouring out from the river that now had a name.

Elpis, meaning hope.

Drusiel, her sister called, her voice like silver, like the light-shadows.

This time she knew it was real, and eternal.


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