Due North [Episode 6]: The River's Song, Part II
Water horses, sentient houses, disappearing cats, grave whisperers, semi-dead grave robbers, minotaurs, bearotaurs, satyrs, dryads, sirens, and more!
Berto found himself staring at the face of one of those mornings. One of those days where you wake up irritated and annoyed at the world in general for no real reason. He was glad Bella had left early, or he was sure to have started a fight over something stupid and come to regret it immediately.
Pushing himself up, he cast his mind back to the events of the previous night, the entire thing feeling like a fever dream. Minotaurs, secret societies in the woods, Alecia and Alia somehow wrapped up in the whole business? It all sounded like something from a book – something from one of his books! He didn’t know what to make of it.
He did know that sitting around and doing nothing would only drive him insane, so, thinking some coffee would do him good (ease his typical morning discomfort if nothing else – he was, and there’s no stressing this enough, not a morning person), he went down to the kitchen, but changed his mind and decided to go to Deluca’s instead, craving a hot brew better than he could ever hope to make on his own.
In all honesty, what he really craved was Alia’s company; he always came away from their conversations smiling, but that wasn’t really something he was ready to admit to himself just yet. Plus, she might have some answers for the questions that plagued his mind. He grabbed a light pullover and headed out, already feeling a little better.
At the end of the lane, he stopped, something else having caught his attention. Where the road forked, one path towards town and the other leading to the forest, Berto paused. It was faint, almost indiscernible, but it seemed to him, there was music in the air. There was no mistaking it – coming from the path leading to the forest, there was the most sensational melody Berto had ever heard, instantly easing his mind, calming his nerves, and shaking off the weariness of the morning.
He looked up to find its source; where he expected a performer of some sort, he was instead met with the sight of a horse made entirely out of water. Currents swirled and eddied throughout its body, sending ripples across it as it stood in place, wholly unaware of the wonderful music that emanated from it. Nose buried in the ground, it was apparently in deep conversation with an unusually whirlpooled pile of leaves.
The moment it saw Berto’s curiously fascinated gaze fixed upon it, it neighed an embarrassed goodbye to the leaves and exploded on the spot, a light shower splattering down around it. To Berto’s surprise, it rematerialised a few paces away, slowly picking up speed. He paused to weigh Alia – Deluca’s’ coffee, he corrected – against a literal horse made of water, groaned, and set off after it.
It proved remarkably difficult to follow, with the repeated disappearing and whatnot, but he managed to largely keep track of it, following deep into the woods, dipping and diving between trees and jumping across low-lying shrubbery and stray roots. He didn’t pause for breath or grumble once for he was much too afraid of losing track of it; one misstep, one momentary sideways glance, would be all it would take.
The water horse led Berto to a clearing of which he stopped just short, choosing to stay hidden in the trees. His first impression was that the hiding may have been unnecessary - this clearing was nothing like the one he and Bella had happened upon the day before. There was no guard of trees, no angry figures standing taller than any regular human should have been able to, no gathering shrouded in secrecy, and no angry bellows threatening them to leave. Instead, Berto found himself, once again, facing something of which he understood little to nothing. He thought he would have been tired of the same song and dance, but instead felt something more akin to tranquillity.
The song he had heard coming from the horse he followed intensified tenfold here. Instead of being imposing and loud though, it fit in contentedly with the other sounds of the forest, weaving between empty spaces and comfortably filling in quiet spots, and an orchestra sprung forth, creating a uniquely designed padded backdrop. Berto wasn’t sure how he knew – there was no way it was possible – but the melody seemed to be coming from the river flowing through, each horse likely having sprung forth from the same waters.
The horse he followed joined a herd, all trotting around idlily, doing essentially what Berto expected from a regular herd. There seemed to be loosely defined groups scattered around, but the horses being made of water rendered “groups” more of a conceptual idea than an actual definition.
From his hidden vantage point, Berto watched two horses engaged in a tussle of some sort along the riverbank. They ran headfirst into each other, bursting into water the second before impact, the water flowing through one another with life of its own, momentarily reforming as one horse with two heads, dissipating, forming a horse twice the size of one, then finally separating back into two.
Berto knew he shouldn’t interfere, especially after the events of the night before. He woke up wanting answers and, although he did indeed have new questions, he had gotten some. There was something magical about Due North, and not just in the sense that the town was everything he wanted and more. There was actual magic at work here – myths turned to reality, fiction to fact, and stories sprung forth from the page. He knew he ought to just leave and be glad he got to witness this marvel, but some part of him compelled the rest of him forward, acting independent of all rationale.
He stepped out of the bushes and into the clearing.
Everyone around him froze, staring intently at him. A horse quietly materialised behind him and nudged him forward with a surprisingly solid muzzle. It didn’t feel like a threat, there was no anger in the action, but Berto understood the message clearly enough.
He walked slowly, drinking in his surroundings, lost entirely in awe, any notion of the possible danger he may have landed himself in pushed far out of his mind. His was afforded a much richer view from his current position than he had from his hiding spot in the trees.
It looked more like a fairy tale, than it did real life. No. No, it felt more like a fairy tale. There was nothing specifically remarkable about the clearing. In fact, just about the only thing that stood out was the river. It dazzled Berto with its brilliance, shining in the sun soaring overhead. It was a purer blue than he had ever seen before – ever imagined before – and made the sky seem like a reflection of it, rather than the other way around. One look and Berto was sure - the river was the source of Due North’s magic and fairy tale feel.
The horse behind him continued nudging him towards that river until he was on its banks. The water began to froth and churn and as he watched, another horse grew out of the disturbance.
The newcomer was smaller than the rest, but had an air of importance, and Berto immediately understood it to be in charge – the chief, mayor, sheriff, leader, emperor, or whatever name they used for leader. The new horse wasted no time dawdling with lengthy preambles about who they were and the extent of their powers. It immediately charged Berto with trespassing and demanded to know how he found them.
A quick glance back at the horse he followed told him that the truth would probably not bode well for the equestrian. On the other hand, he had no idea what these horses were capable of, and if they came with some sort of in-built lie detector, lying would not bode well for him.
He cursed silently. There was no real choice here.
‘I’m not sure. I’m – I’m extremely confused right now and don’t have a clue about what’s going on. What are you guys? Where am I? And what exactly am I trespassing on?’
Berto was frightened throughout the lie so wasn’t sure how convincing he was, but it seemed like it worked. The chief grumbled something about weakening magic and it not technically being Berto’s fault, so settled for an immediate escort off their land.
‘Oh, yes! Yes, for sure. I will leave right away,’ Berto said, relieved at the verdict.
‘That won’t be necessary, human,’ the chief interjected.
Before Berto could voice his confusion, the river rose up and engulfed him whole, sending him into a terrified shock. He didn’t know how to swim – he had tried learning for years on end, but never seemed to be able to get the hang of it – and drowning was right up there on his list of fears. He tried holding his breath, but his hyperventilation made that impossible, and he was swept into the currents a panicking mess.
He was pulled deep into the river, but with a protective bubble surrounding him, shielding him from the torrents and his fears; his distress proved to be for naught. Once Berto realised this, he calmed down and began to laugh out of delight.
He could see perfectly and breathe with ease. The bubble carried him forwards, pushing him through the river, giving him a front row seat to the wonders that lay within. He saw water foals, only able to hold their equestrian forms for a few seconds before reverting to a swirl of water. He saw fish with scales that glittered and changed colours in front of his eyes – gold then silver then red then orange. Merfolk and sirens mingled freely, the river’s hauntingly beautiful song finding new life in theirs’.
Berto was too engrossed in the river’s secrets to notice when it had brought him back to town, depositing him a little way away from Deluca’s. He smiled. He didn’t have to make a choice after all.
Subscribe for a free copy of Frozen Summer: Stories From the Dark and Twisted Crevices of the Universe, early looks, voting rights for upcoming serials, AND subscriber-only stories. Plus, my eternal gratitude.