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River’s Edge

A science-fiction short story.

C.M. Simpson

When my mother told me to run, I ran. I ran all the way to the river and then stopped—because the river was a frightening place, and forbidden by the raiders who came to take their annual toll of settlers. Faced with the choice of being taken, or taking my chances in the river, I took a step back, and hoped that somewhere, across the river I’d find help.

Smashwords Edition

C.M. Simpson Publishing

Copyright © August 3, 2018 C.M. Simpson

Cover Photography—River © Shsphotography at Dreamstime

Cover Art—Planetscape © Aphelleon at Dreamstime

Cover Art—Spaceship © Junichi Shimazaki at Dreamstime

Cover Photography—Girl looking up © Evgeniy Piderken at Dreamstime

Cover Design © July 19, 2018, C.M. Simpson

All rights reserved.

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This is for all those who believed in me enough that, eventually, I had the courage to believe in myself.

Thank you.


River’s Edge

Other Work by C.M. Simpson

About C.M. Simpson

River’s Edge

The first two sentences for this short story arrived in my head at some ungodly late hour on January 7, 2018, when I was having a shower just before going to bed. This, if you aren’t already aware, is often the way with stories, and if you ignore such gifts, they don’t stay around until morning. It also arrived at the same time as the concept for another short story I need to write, A Queen of Winter, so I had to juggle two ideas in my head, until I could get out of the shower and dry enough to write them down. I picked up the story, again, on July 9, 2018, after finishing the fourth novel in the Mack ‘n’ Me ‘n’ Odyssey series, and kept writing just to see where it went. The story was completed on July 10, 2018, and became a borderline science fiction-fantasy blend.

I stood at the edge of the river, both feet firmly planted amidst the sweet meadow grass, the toes of my boots scant inches from the water. What would it be like, I wondered, to take that one step more?

Behind me bugles rang, and I glanced back, trying to see through the cover of the trees, trying to gauge if I really had a choice about the river, or if I was honestly thinking of facing the fate roaring through the foliage towards me. I turned. Perhaps that fate wouldn’t be as bad as I’d heard. Perhaps…

One look at the bestial features of the rider mounted on the giant boar, and I knew otherwise. The elders had been sugar-coating the truth for years; the only reason our colony had survived was because we paid a tribute in human lives—and I wasn’t going to be a part of it. Whatever the stories were that surrounded the river, none of them promised the horror I read on that face.

It was worth the risk.

And maybe I would find salvation downstream. Maybe there would be someone I could ask for help. Our ancestors might not have chosen to land here, but we had no choice about staying, Confederation and Alliance rules, or no. My mother had given me the chance to reach the river. I would not disrespect her by wasting it.

The rider drew her beast to a skidding halt, the tip of her spear bare inches from my chest.

“Going somewhere, child?” she asked, and I licked my lips. “Come back with me. I have a better use for that tongue.”

I was sure she did, even though I couldn’t think what. The boar was not the only one with fangs that curled over its lip. The creature mounted on its back looked carnivorous. I took a step back, not intending it to be my last on dry land—but I’d forgotten how deliberately I’d stood on the river’s edge, my heels in line with its bank, and my foot struck nothing.

I had time for one startled shriek, throwing my arms out for balance as my sole found the water’s surface and plunged through, and then I was falling. Coarse laughter followed me down, and I watched as they turned their mounts parallel to the bank. They looked odd as rippling shadows blending into the trees, and I hoped the stories weren’t entirely true.

Giant fish that could swallow a man whole, eels able to strip the flesh from a cow in seconds, amphibious lizards that paralysed with a bite so their young could eat living flesh until they were large enough to hunt it on their own, these were the nightmares that ran through my head as I flailed my way to the surface. The surface—where the riders were waiting.

The first spear thrust came as a surprise, and I turned, feeling the blade graze my back, as I noticed the rope trailing behind. I didn’t wait for a second shaft to come flying in my direction, but dove away from the bank, pushing myself under the surface and hoping they wouldn’t try for me until I came up for air.

My mother had always told me I was a dreamer.

The second spear missed, but not by much, and my lungs felt near to bursting. I spotted shadows, and swam towards them, hoping that whatever cast them would provide sufficient cover to hide me from the riders’ eyes—or at the very least foul their aim. Just in case I hadn’t reached the shadows before the next throw, I twisted, rolling sideways in the water, grateful for the lake above the settlement, where it had been safe enough to learn the skill.

A third spear flashed through the space my body had occupied, and I prayed the riders stuck to taking turns, and did not decide to throw all at once. Unlike the first two, that spear had been aimed to kill—and now I understood the purpose of the rope.

It was not just to drag the weapon back to shore, should it miss, but to drag the prey back, as well. After all, meat could not be eaten, if it floated downstream. Not unless it washed ashore before it sank—and the chances of that were slim.

I reached the shadows’ edge, surprised to discover thick fronds of weed growing from the river bed. I might have hesitated about entering this underwater grove, except the idea of being skewered and dragged ashore to be eaten was far more frightening than the idea that something harmful might live among the weeds.

Not that any of the village knew for certain. The riders came every year, bringing their stories and their prohibitions, and the punishments meted out to anyone caught in the forbidden area were memorable enough that most did not risk them. It was why my mother had told me to try for the river. She was sure it was somewhere the riders feared to go.

I remembered the spears secured by rope, and the easy familiarity with which my hunters had ridden the river’s edge, and wept that she’d been wrong. Pulling myself further into the shelter of the weed, I realised shadow pooled on the water above, and swam up. Perhaps the shade would protect me from the hunters’ aim, too. Perhaps…

The first thing I did, when I surfaced, was look back across the water. The second was to note how far across the river I’d swum, that the bank from which I’d fallen now lay opposite me, and also lay empty. Not even the shrubbery moved to show where the riders had gone. I trod water, breathing in the sheltered air, and hoping things did not go too badly for the rest of the colony, trying hard not to wonder who would be taken in my place, given the riders didn’t like to lose.

I didn’t start thinking that I should get out of the water until something brushed my leg—and it didn’t feel like a piece of weed. I froze, and immediately started to sink. Looking over at the river bank where I’d last seen the riders, I realised I was much further from it than I’d thought, that, while I’d been thinking, I’d been carried further across the river, and then down it, through the drifting weed.

Turning my head the other way, I realised I was floating alongside the steeply rising bank opposite to where I’d gone in. Soft, green tendrils draped over its edge, not grass, but some sort of bush growing flat to the ground. Dotted, here and there, amidst its foliage were tiny blue flowers, with spots of white at the base of each long, thin petal.

The touch came again, and I realised it wasn’t me drifting against the river-bed weeds. The touches from those were no firmer than the brush of the slowly increasing current. The sensations I was getting, now, were stronger, like a hand, or a tentacle, or a cat brushing against my leg. Only there were no cats beneath the water. None.

I looked up at the bank, and saw that the sides had grown steeper still. The blue-dotted drapery now wound its way through sharp spires of rock, and the current was faster. Rivers led to waterfalls in all the teaching texts. Did this one?

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