Liam was beyond hearing me, trapped in a world of touch, scent and taste, but the liquid sloshing around in the stoneware jar I carried was just a temporary state for him.
Each touch of the misty air and dew on the grass drew a faint glow from my skin and awakened my senses. Moonlight, bright enough to cast shadows, glinted off the river up ahead where she wound through the valley in tight, sweeping curves. Over the bubbling excitement of her youth but not yet tired and clogged with silt as she became further downstream; a river in her prime.
It shouldn’t be me, but there was no one else; Liam had no family to take responsibility for him. The silence of the council chamber, when Patriarch Hallum called for volunteers, deafened me. How could they? He was one of us, an elemental. Wasn’t that enough? But then, Liam had ideas about change that they would rather just went away.
I couldn’t say goodbye so easily.
“Merrith, walk out that door and you will never be welcome back. I will strike your name from the family ledger.” My father’s voice and my mother’s sobs echoed in my head. I left anyway. I knew how I felt, even though I had only hopes that Liam cared for me too.
On the bank of the river I set the jar down along with the kayak paddle strapped to my back. The playful current tugged on my toes when I lowered them into the icy water. The river’s tingling energy flowed into me through the soles of my feet, but no amount of sweet liquid life could banish the doubts festering inside me.
I regarded Liam’s jar. “I will try my best, I swear.”
From my backpack I withdrew pouches of salts and glucose. Raw materials for the rebuilding process. In the bottom I left a bundle of clothing for when he finished. The jar lid lifted with a soft scrape. The pale blue radiance of Liam’s elemental form lit up my face.
“Please try to be quick.” I closed my eyes and upended the jar. The splash as he hit the surface dotted my bare shins with moisture.
The clock began to tick. I snatched up the sachets of nutrients, tore each one open and shook the various powders into the river. More would come from the water and the silt on the riverbed. Eddies swirled around the spot, contrary to the river’s flow. Liam. His faint glow permeated the clear water.
I waded out with the kayak paddle and let it drift on the surface, tethered to my wrist. The water lapped up my thighs and soaked into the hem of my shorts. A little cut into the vein on the back of each hand freed my blood into the water. I lowered my hands below the surface and gasped as Liam drew upon my life energy. Family blood would have been stronger.
By the time the wounds closed I felt light headed. In the spot beside the bank a red tint to the water mingled with Liam’s blue glow. Cloudy white tendrils knitted together into bones.
I tried to persuade myself the first high pitched wail was a bird, or the wind. Then the first tentacles prodded the surface of the water, rearing up and melting away again. Sprites. Drawn by Liam’s presence.
The gathering sprites circled, visible only by the ghosts of their movement. I slapped the paddle on the water’s surface. The concussion wouldn’t hurt them, but it might scare them off for a few moments. A daring one stole in and clamped tiny needle teeth around my finger. I snatched my hand out of the water. For a moment, the oily black slug hung like a drop of water the size of a melon before it let go and dropped back into the river with a hiss.
I swept the paddle in a wide arc. The water seethed and churned around the wide blade. “You cannot have him.”
Chunks of jelly like flesh clung to Liam’s milky bones, and a spider web of nerves and empty blood vessels fanned out in the water. I swallowed rising bile. At fifty-four I was barely out of adolescence and I’d never died; I couldn’t begin to imagine what it felt like to re-clothe yourself in flesh.
Needle teeth pricked my shin and I kicked out. My foot connected with a slimy body and the greasy suction around my toes sent a shiver up my spine. As more sprites arrived they became bolder. I struck out with the paddle, turning each one away, but my arms were beginning to ache. The loss of blood and energy left me drained despite the constant renewal of the river.
A group ploughed into me and, in the rush, I lost my footing. One slipped past me and dove for Liam’s vulnerable new flesh. It tore a mushy chunk from one thigh and the half covered skeleton jerked. I fought another wave of revulsion. A frustrated scream ripped from my throat and I brought the paddle down like sledge hammer focusing my remaining energy to bend the river to my will. The water recoiled sending the screeching sprites out in a greasy wave.
In the short respite I leaned on the paddle, breathing heavily. My precious blood ebbed from a hundred tiny bites. Flesh now obscured Liam’s skeleton, solid, fibrous. A pale sheen of skin bloomed across his chest and white ping-pong spheres of eyeballs bulged from lidless sockets.
The sprites moved back in. I swept the paddle in wide arcs, back and forward; exhaustion drained the power and precision from my movements and all effort to conserve energy by directing my attacks vanished. First one dark shape and then another slipped past me and ripped pieces from Liam’s tender new body. Hot tears streamed down my cheeks. The swelling back mass ebbed and surged with the sweeps of the paddle, closing, until they forced me to my knees.
“I’m sorry,” I gasped before the water closed over me.
Cool, damp grass pressed against my cheek.
I lifted my pounding head. The river flowed by serenely a few meters away. Silhouetted against the moonlit surface, Liam sat on the river bank, facing away from me. My stomach turned over sending an uncomfortable fizz out to the tips of my fingers and toes.
I sat up and a wave of real nausea followed the emotional flip. I lurched onto all fours emptied the contents of my stomach onto the grass.
Liam’s head jerked round then another heave turned my attention away from him.
Gentle hands brushed my cheeks and neck, pulling my damp hair back from my face and holding it there until my retches turned to coughs and then subsided. I slumped back onto my hip and risked my first glimpse at his face.
Sometimes the resurrection produced an entirely new form, but other than an ugly pink scar that puckered one cheek he looked like I remembered him. The crinkle of his lips, the slight hook to the end of his nose. His warm hazel eyes clouded with concern.
“It’ll pass, Merrith,” he said.
I turned away hiding the tears welling up in my eyes. That scar on his face, the work of a sprite, was just one of many he’d carry for a lifetime, because I wasn’t good enough.
His arms wrapped around me. “Don’t. Thank you.” He pressed his lips against my forehead, warm and genuine with just a tremble of uncertainty that undid me. I tightened my grip around him and let out a sob against his chest.
“It’s okay,” he whispered, stroking my hair.
We sat quietly for a little while sharing little touches that said everything about how we felt but had never been ready to say.
“I’m surprised your father let you do this.”
Her father would never have let her be with him at all. Maybe that was why he’d never said anything.
“He didn’t.” I let out a shuddering breath. “I’ve been disinherited.”
I answered him by looking into his eyes. I didn’t know where to start.
“We’ll find somewhere new,” he said, banishing my fears in one sweep. “Somewhere with beautiful rivers.”
A smile broke free on my lips and he matched it, the scar on his cheek twisting it into a lopsided grin. It was the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen.