The river-god turned over in his sleep. He’d worked hard for countless millions of years, guiding his river down to the sea, and he needed rest. Voices came and went, but this was more insistent and beat on the gates of his slumber.
“Awake, O great god.” The voice slipped into a dream that wasn’t quite a dream. “Your people call on you in their need.”
His bed was less comfortable than usual: hard, jagged stones, instead of gentle water to rock him. The dream from within slowly merged with the world outside, and the voice was saying, “You shall have whatever offering you wish, great god. We beg you to awake.”
The river-god sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked about. So that was why his bed felt so uncomfortable. The course down which his water should pour was empty, exposing its stony bottom.
How could this be? His waters never dried up–he prided himself on it–and he didn’t believe for a moment the forces of nature were responsible. Who had done this to him?
A mortal stood on the bank, her arms raised. As far as he could make out, she was what mortals called old. There were lines all over her creased face, and wispy grey hair blew in the fresh breeze. She felt too wholesome to be the culprit, with the river’s rhythms suffusing her soul, but who could tell with mortals?
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The woman staggered back a few steps; she looked terrified, but her eyes remained fixed on him. “Lord, I’m Durka, your priestess. For forty years, I’ve led the rituals that honour you, and I’ve blessed the offerings that the tribe cast into the water.”
Offerings? So that was it. The mortals who lived near this part of the river had a habit of throwing objects into the water from time to time. He cared nothing for the things themselves, only for the reverence that clothed them. It had never occurred to him that the mortals were giving him gifts.
“Last winter,” said Durka, “the tribe cast twenty-seven hunting spears into your waters as a special offering. We couldn’t afford to lose them, but your waters had been falling. Are you angry with us?”
Why should he be angry with mortals who honoured the river? It was a strange idea, but he didn’t want this priestess–whatever that was–to be upset. Her aura showed her love for the river, even more than the rest of the tribe.
“I wasn’t angry, little mortal. I was asleep. Where has the river gone?”
Her face grew more distressed. “We sent scouts to find out. Another tribe, two days’ journey upstream, have built a great dam across it. They harvest the waters and allow none to come down the river-course. Our land withers, and all the beasts of the forest are dying of thirst. And so are the tribe. We beg for your help, great god.”
His fury swelled as she spoke. Who were these people who had dared to steal his river? When she finished, he let out a great roar. The priestess screamed and staggered back, falling over.
Immediately, the river-god was sorry. This mortal, Durka, wasn’t to blame–indeed, she had done him a service by wakening him. Reaching out, he picked her up in one hand, setting her on her feet, and stroked her hair with a fingertip.
“Don’t be afraid. Only the thieves need to fear me. I shall search for the river.”
He closed his eyes, sending his thoughts upstream until he found the captive waters, penned against a vast wall. He examined the barrier, afraid it might be part of the earth and would need thousands of years to wear down, but it was a feeble thing of sand, mud and gravel bound together with water that was now gone.
Very well: if water had made it, water could unmake it. The river-god reached out to the imprisoned, urging it to attack the weaknesses he’d found, but it didn’t seem to hear.
Returning his mind to the place where he’d slept, the river-god looked around and understood. “The river’s imprisoned,” he told Durka, frustration seething like rapids, “but I can’t reach it with no water in between. The connection is broken.”
She frowned, fear and concern on her face. “What would you do,” she asked after a moment, “if you could reach?”
“I’d tell it where to attack the dam. But it can’t hear me. Someone will need to take a message, but I shall have to fill them with my power, so that they can speak to the water. That would be deadly for a mortal.”
“I’ll do it,” said Durka. “I’ve had a good life, and if I must die to save the river and the tribe, so be it.”
The river-god hesitated. He didn’t want to put such a reverent mortal in danger, but what other choice was there? Leaning forward, he breathed a little of himself into her soul and found himself seeing through her eyes. The vast figure in front of her looked old, too.
It took Durka two days to reach the dam, and the river-god was with her all the way. He sustained her, so that she didn’t tire, or hunger, or thirst, but her body was crumbling against the force of divinity it contained. Would she survive long enough to speak to the water?
When she came in sight of the place, the river-god felt fury sweeping up again at the sight of the soulless prison, but he contained the anger. It could damage Durka. There was a long climb down the bank to reach the water, and he felt pain racking her at every step and slide, but she pushed herself forward, stumbling and falling in places. Each time, she climbed to her feet, and she reached the waterside at last. Kneeling with her hands immersed, she spoke to the river, telling them with the god’s voice how it could get free.
Directed to the weaknesses he’d identified in the structure, the imprisoned water attacked again and again. Cracks formed, and it flowed inside, gnawing away at the monstrosity until the cracks went all the way through.
Mortals in strange clothes were running and slithering down the bank towards Durka, shouting something about “damned natives”. One raised a stick, and lighting flared from it, followed a moment later by the report of the thunder. The river-god felt agony sear through Durka.
The old woman reared up with her last strength and dived into the water. Letting it bear her up, she urged the river against its enemy again and again.
With a roar like a slow avalanche, the dam collapsed before the assault of the water it held captive. Running and plunging in the ecstasy of its freedom, the river careered down its course faster than the plunge of a waterfall, and the god met it, rushing upstream to where Durka was carried on its crest.
Durka’s life-force was weak, from the wound and the water inside her, as well as from carrying the god’s power, but she smiled faintly as he caught her up in his arms. Holding her tightly, the river-god swam down to his sleeping-place and laid her carefully on the bank.
“You’ve done me a great service,” he said, “and I shall guard and protect your people for as long as they live here, even if it takes twenty ice-ages.”
Durka smiled again, and her soul slipped out of her body. He caught it before it drifted away and set it gently in the river, which greeted the soul joyously. Durka’s soul, no longer old and weak, played with the water she’d rescued, as she’d play for as long as it ran.
The river-god settled down, to guard and guide the water that was his charge. He didn’t sleep.
Nyki Blatchley is a British author and poet who graduated from Keele University in English and Greek and now lives just outside London. He has had about forty stories published, mostly fantasy or horror, in various magazines, webzines and anthologies, including Penumbra, Lore, Wily Writers and The Thirteenth Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories. His novel At An Uncertain Hour was published by StoneGarden in April 2009, and he’s had novellas out from Musa Publishing and Darwin’s Evolutions. He’s currently working on a fantasy trilogy called The Winter Legend.