We caught up with Vintan three mornings later, not much after sunrise. We’d been riding since before midnight, downhill through chilly, brittle air. Stan spotted the feathery smoke first and yelled, “Three campfires! What’s left of three fires, anyway. I bet they ate bacon this morning. Wish I had some bacon. Damn them knobby buggers for having bacon.”
We guided our horses at a sedate walk just beside the tree line for less than an hour. Then I topped a shallow rise, edged under a tree, and looked down into the Blue River valley. It was immensely wide, over a mile, and popping with millions of red, yellow, and orange flowers, as if they’d been painted on. The river itself was a hundred paces across and ran straight through the valley with never a curve. It really was a frosty blue. That’s all the detail I noticed, since about a dozen men sat their horses on the far riverbank, and two dozen sat mounted on the near bank, looking at the water as if they might swim their horses across any minute.
Desh rode up beside me. “They must have had to stop until the water dropped. We’d never have caught them otherwise, regardless of how hard we rode.”
“Get back over there!” I hissed. I turned my horse and chased him back out of sight of the river.
When we’d all dismounted, I said, “Desh, you hold the horses. And don’t go taking them down to the river for a romp and a drink. Or to wave at the Denzmen and make friends with them. Stay here.”
Desh blinked and pulled at his collar. “I only rode up with you for just a few seconds.”
“If I find out they saw you, I’m only going to stab you with just a few inches of steel.”
Ella, Ralt, Stan, and I sneaked among the trees back to the lip of the valley, and then crouched to get a clear view of the Denzmen by the river. One man had ridden out into the water. He had reached mid-river, and the fast water splashed no higher than his thighs.
Ella said, “We will follow them, of course, but perhaps now is the time to dispatch a messenger back to the army and guide them here.”
Ralt and Stan began squabbling in dramatic whispers over who would get to go back. Before I could whack them both with my hat, a wagon-size piece of the river surged up beside the rider, overwhelmed him, and carried him under.
“Shit. I’m the one going back,” Ralt said. The rider didn’t resurface, and neither did his horse. “I’m not going down there. I’m the one going back if I have to kill every one of you.”
“What did we just see?” Ella hissed.
It didn’t make any sense. We’d seen something that could not have been natural, but every supernatural thing in the world had been stamped out years ago when the gods took their party elsewhere.
Ten men and one boy, probably the prince, rode into the river while the rest waited on the near bank. Ella scrambled to her feet, slipping once, and sprinted back toward the horses. I stared a moment before realizing what she was doing, and I ran after her. As she was pushing Desh out of her way, I snatched her arm and spun her.
“Wait!” I stepped between her and the horses. “It won’t make any difference. He’ll be mid-river before you get there.”
She bared her teeth at me. “Move!”
“If he survives, you can’t help him by charging down there and getting killed.”
She roared at me, and I glanced back toward the river.
“If he doesn’t survive—”
Ella punched me right in the nose, and I staggered. I felt the blood running and figured it might be broken. She was on her horse and galloping toward the river before my vision cleared.
I wiped my upper lip as I mounted the nearest horse. “Well, come on, Desh. You were the one who was so keen to see the river.”
Halfway down the valley, I remembered this was exactly the kind of thing I had planned to avoid doing. I also saw that the prince had already crossed the river’s midpoint without getting crushed and drowned, and the closer Denzmen had already ridden into the current. It didn’t appear that any more Denzmen had been killed, either.
Ella’s horse bolted past the cooling campfires and stopped dead. She flew straight over the creature’s head and smacked faceup onto the soft riverbank, her sheathed sword twisted under her and one foot stretched out in the choppy water.
Having seen Ella’s catastrophe, I drew rein at the campfires, so my horse was walking when he got scared and tried to throw me. I slipped off and let him gallop after Ella’s horse back up the hill. Ella was still on her back and shaking her head, paying no attention to the fact that she was slipping into the river. I hopped down and began pulling her up higher onto the bank, but she was solider than she looked. Just as I’d shifted to a better grip, the water jumped from choppy to roiling. I hauled again and realized something was trying to pull her in. Desh showed up and grabbed one of her arms. We pulled her out by slow inches, and every second I imagined all three of us getting devoured by some gigantic, cold-water crocodile.
Once we’d dragged Ella out, we all scooted far back on the riverbank and panted, staring at the water like mice staring at a snake. The river didn’t let us catch our breath. Ten paces out from the bank, something surged to the surface, cascading water in every direction. It soaked us and the ground behind us.
The figure said, “Blood or brains?” just like a waitress might ask whether you wanted beer or wine. A touch friendly, but mainly just doing her job. It appeared to be a woman, although exceptional in various ways. For one, she was naked. For another, she was light blue—skin, hair, eyes, and everything. She was beautiful. She was perfect, really, so perfect that if you looked hard at her for a few seconds, you’d get terrified, because nothing natural could be that perfect. And she was standing on the surface of the river, the water just covering her feet.
I had heard a fair amount about river spirits back in my sorcery days, but I’d never met one. This had to be one of them—the stories and descriptions of floating women with floating hair matched. I’d even seen an engraving owned by a monk who was addicted to root oil. He charged the local boys two copper bits apiece to look at the red, naked woman on the water. Apart from the creature’s color, it all fit. I walked down to the water’s edge. “Blood or brains? Can’t I have both?”
“I’m sorry, that’s against the rules. Most people choose blood.”
I pointed across the river. “Did those fellows take blood?”
“In a way of speaking. They chose blood, and I took it. What is your name, Ir-man?”
“I think I’ll avoid letting you charm me with my name, if that won’t offend you.” I glanced back at Desh and Ella, sitting on the flower-pocked grass with eyes as big as barrelheads. “You can call me Hrothkir, the Red-Handed Butcher of Gurk.”
The river spirit shrugged. Her long hair floated above her shoulders for a moment before settling. “Choose blood. I will only take one of you. If you choose brains and fail, I will take you all. Or you can turn back. I don’t care if you turn back.”
Vintan must have chosen blood and let his man be taken by the river. That was the smart move. I could probably say blood, snatch Desh up off the riverbank before he could run, and hurl him into the water. I looked back again and found Desh over my shoulder.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
“Don’t go falling in love with a river spirit, son. It never ends well.”
“Not her. The magic. A beautiful thing.”
“Hrothkir, it is time to choose,” the spirit said.
Desh was falling in love with magic, not the spirit. Foolishly in love with something that would break his heart if it didn’t kill him first. Most young men do that with something, maybe women, or danger, or something else. Being a young man foolishly in love is one of the most pleasurable things the world has to offer, and I couldn’t quite convince myself to take it away from him.
Why didn’t I just collect my horse and ride away? At the time, I asked myself that very question. I might have done it, except that Vintan, the swamp-rancid Denzman who beheaded little girls, was on the other side of the river. He was crying out for me to come murder him, and I didn’t want to be a disappointment to him.
I winked at the spirit. “I choose brains.”
The river spirit bobbed like an empty bottle and smiled. “I will ask you three riddles.”
“Oh, come on! Everybody asks riddles. The pissant spirits of trees that don’t come up to my nipples ask riddles! You’re the spirit of the Blue River. You can think of something better than that. Really, aren’t you bored after centuries of asking a bunch of damn riddles?” It wouldn’t hurt to throw her off her stride, figuratively, since she probably never walked anywhere.
She looked at the water around her ankles. “Well . . .”
By now, Ella stood on one side of me and Desh stood on the other. Ella squeezed my arm and nodded.
“Do you know any games?” I said. “You can challenge me to a game. If you win, it’s just as if you’d stumped me with riddles.”
“I know a game! It’s a wonderful game.” The spirit grinned and bobbed like a wine cork. “You’ll never win against me.”
“How do you play?”
The spirit came to the river’s edge with a swirl that sprayed water higher than my head. She raised her hand and produced a pair of wooden scissors, dark and smooth and as long as her palm. Opening the blades, she held the scissors out to me and said, “I give these to you open.”
Whatever this game was, I’d never heard of it. “Wait, what are the rules?”
“The game is figuring out the rules.”
I wished I’d just answered the damn riddles. I closed the blades and handed them to her, saying, “I give these to you closed.”
“Wrong. If you are wrong twice more, you lose. If you are correct three times before then, you win.” She left the blades closed and held them out. “I give these to you closed.”
I opened the blades. “I give these to you open.”
I looked at the scissors in her hand. Other than being made of wood, nothing about them seemed odd, not a thing at all. “Are there really any rules? Is the rule that you get to cheat?”
She shook her head and left the blades open. “I give these to you closed.” As she was handing the scissors to me, I examined her fingers, the set of her mouth, the angle of her head, and whether her eyes were crossed. Nothing looked like it made a difference in what she said.
I left the blades open and said, “I give these to you closed.”
“Wrong again. If you make another mistake, you lose.” She opened the blades. “I give these to you open.”
As she handed them across, I stared at the water, thinking hard, and I saw her ankles were crossed. Just before she said “open” and handed over the scissors, she uncrossed her ankles.
If I got this one wrong, the spirit would kill us all when we tried to ford the river. And Ella would try to cross it, no matter what. I left the blades open. “I give these to you open.”
“Correct.” She left the blades open. I saw her cross her ankles as she said, “I give these to you closed.”
I made sure my feet were wide apart and handed the open scissors back to her. “I give these to you open.”
The river spirit stared at me for a moment, and then she closed her hand to make the scissors disappear. “Well . . . you are the victor. Would you like to try riddles now? I know some very good ones.”
“That is a kind offer, but I have urgent business on the other side of your beautiful river.”
“Fine. You and your people should cross quickly. I think there may be a storm soon.” She collapsed as if a bucket of water had been poured into the river.
I looked around and saw blue sky to the horizon in all directions. No one had ever told me that river spirits were petty. I’d have to keep that in mind.
We gathered the boys and the horses, and we crossed the river, although we had to yell at Ralt and shame him quite a bit to force him into the water. As we rode up onto the far bank, the river spirit rose again. “I presume you’ll be returning this way. When you try to cross on your journey home, I will not be playing games.”
A familiar feeling had hit me the moment my horse stepped into the river, and its presence sickened me a little. It felt like a soft breeze sweeping my skin, even under my clothes, but it drifted away when I stopped thinking about it. However, it did leave behind an unpleasant warm spot in my left armpit, a whimsical gift from the gods to go along with making magic possible. I hadn’t thought about this feeling for a long time.
Considering the random appearance of a magical being, I had half-expected magic to pop up like a feral groundhog, with nothing good or even admirable about it. I could ignore this magical power, save it for emergencies, or snatch this rare opportunity to protect us from anybody else wandering the southlands with a feral groundhog of their own. I took mental inventory, and I had just enough power left over from the old days.
I reached out my right hand, pulled a glowing yellow band out of nothing, and whipped it around the river spirit’s neck. She screamed as I said, “Limnad, I bind you.” I reached with both hands and tied each of her ankles with orange bands. “Limnad, I bind you.”
Ella had drawn her sword and was shouting over the spirit’s screams. “What’s happening? Who’s killing her?” It made sense for Ella to be confused, since only I could see the bands I’d created.
A moment later, I had wrapped two more orange bands around the spirit’s wrists. “Limnad, I bind you.”
This whole escapade would have been mighty awkward if the river spirit’s name hadn’t been Limnad. However, I’d once overheard Gorlana, Goddess of Mercy, say how much she hated the prissy spirits of the Blue River, especially that royal bitch Limnad. So, I had guessed this was her, and if I’d guessed wrong, I would have just ridden like hell out of that valley and never come back.
“Sorcerer!” Limnad screamed. “I will feed your eyes to the turtles! I will make spears from your bones!”
“You have a right to be upset, Limnad—”
“Stop saying my name!”
“I do apologize. I will find a way to repair this to your satisfaction, I promise. By the way, Gorlana says hello.”
I rode to the water’s edge near where she floated. “You have earned my deep respect during the few minutes we’ve known one another. I find I cannot bear to part company with a being of such wit and power as yourself.”
“Bib . . .” Ella cautioned.
I smiled at Limnad. “Darling, you are coming with me.”
“You cannot hold me forever. You look strong. I can torture you for years before your heart rips itself into gobbets and strips.”
“I’ll allow that you might do that. But like I said, I’ll try to make it up to you.”
“Bib!” Ella said. “I need to speak with you this minute!”
I gazed around. Desh looked as if I’d just given him a puppy.
Ella looked like I’d just skinned her puppy and eaten it.