Above me, the citadel’s irrigation turned on, sending a silent mist down onto the arbor. I tracked wet footprints to my room and wedged the desk chair under the doorknob.
I fell into a fitful slumber, but woke to an unchanged room. I sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. Had I imagined it all? Somehow, that thought was less reassuring than the alternative. I got up, but my hands hesitated to remove the chair from the door. What if the fox or Kenn were waiting for me? What if they weren’t? I cursed my indecision. I was tired of being afraid, tired of being alone, and tired of being tired of everything.
I pushed the chair free and headed to the cove. It was time to find some answers on my own. I slowly eased myself into the warm water. My black hair fanned out around my shoulders as I took a deep breath and dived. The fish scattered at the intrusion. I patted down the walls in search of an opening, but it was clear after several attempts that it was far deeper. I clung to the pavestones at the cove’s edge as I caught my breath. I didn’t relish swimming beyond the light’s reach, but I had come this far. It seemed silly to quit.
I kicked off from the wall to propel myself into the depths. As the light dimmed, I felt around blindly. My hands scraped against rocks and tangled in weeds as I pulled myself deeper and deeper. I soon realized my folly. In the darkness, I had no way of knowing which way was up. I turned around and frantically pulled myself in the direction I thought I had come, but the water grew no lighter. My lungs screamed. Had the shadows finally caught up with me?
Kenn’s sinuous form suddenly coiled around me and hauled me to the surface. I greedily gulped air as he swam me to the pavestones. His arms held me there for mine were leaden.
“What were you thinking?” ask Kenn, his tone a mixture of concern and anger.
“I was looking for the entrance.”
“It’s deeper than you can swim on your own,” he said. “Promise me you’ll never try that again.”
I gave him a sideways glance. His expression revealed nothing, but the yellow of his eyes had swallowed the green.
“I have no desire to die like my little brother,” I said.
“He took his own life,” I said as I stared at the pavestones in front of me, “rather than fight in the war that killed our older brother and my husband. He was barely 16.”
“You were married,” stated Kenn, his tone inquiring yet tinted with a note of surprise.
“For two months, before he went off to fight,” I said. “A month later, I was a widow. And now there’s no one left.”
“You’re still here.”
The angry scrapes on my hands glared accusingly at me. “I’ve come so close to death so many times. I’m beginning to think even it doesn’t want me.”
“Then perhaps there is something you still need to do.”
I snorted. “I’ve done everything that was ever asked of me. I have nothing left to give except my life, and I thought I had already given that. Yet here I am.”
“Jianna, why did you want to find the tunnel?” asked Kenn. “You know how dangerous it is outside these walls.”
I shrugged. “Just in case.”
“In case what?”
I bit my bottom lip, glad he couldn’t see my face. “In case you didn’t come back.”
Kenn shifted in the water to move beside me. “I would never abandon you here.”
The sincerity in his voice made me feel guilty for doubting him. I met his gaze.
His eyes darkened to green again. “Did something happen?”
“You were gone for so long,” I said. “I thought I must have offended you in some way.”
His relief was palpable. “The length of my absence had nothing to do with you. There are places where the water is turbulent and tricky even for me—more so now that our worlds have drifted so far apart. It took far longer than I anticipated.”
I couldn’t think of what else to say so I said nothing. Kenn helped me climb from the water. I sat as he dressed, too tired to move.
“We should get you some dry clothes,” said Kenn, “and see to your hands.”
While my hands no longer bled, they had begun to ache. Kenn left me in my room to change as he retrieved a medical kit. When he returned, he stuck a cloth patch onto my shoulder as I sat down on my bed.
“It’ll dull the pain,” he said.
I accepted it without question and watched in silence as he sprayed my wounds with antiseptic and wrapped my palms with gauze. When he was finished, Kenn sat next to me.
“You do know you are free to ask me anything,” he said.
I nodded, but the coward in me wasn’t ready for the answers. Instead, I pulled out his book and handed it to him. Kenn began to read, and I soon lost myself in the warm timbre of his voice.
I jerked myself awake, embarrassed that I had dozed off, but I was lying on the bed with the book beside me. Of Kenn, there was no sign. I fingered the patch on my shoulder and was startled by the glimpse of bruises curving around the outside of my legs. They traced a clear path where Kenn had wrapped around me and no doubt ran the length of my torso. I climbed stiffly to my feet and trudged off to get something to eat, kneading my shoulders as best I could with my bandaged hands. I walked right into Kenn.
He steadied me. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I…didn’t expect you to still be here,” I said. Had he been here the entire time?
“I should change your bandages.”
He led me back to my room. I sat down on the desk chair and stared at the top of his head as he unbound the gauze. His fingers gently slid over my palms.
“You’re healing quickly,” he said as he wrapped my hands with fresh dressings.
“There’s something I need to ask you,” I said.
Kenn glanced up at me.
I could feel myself losing my nerve so I looked away. “What happened to the last person you brought here?”
Kenn moved to sit on my unmade bed. “He was the same age as your brother, and he too chose to end his life. I thought the citadel, isolated by water, would protect him better than I could on land, but it was that very isolation that killed him. I’d forgotten that your kind craves contact and social interaction.”
“That’s why you visit so often.”
He nodded. “I won’t make the same mistake, but there’s something else that’s troubling you.”
I chewed on my lower lip. Was I that easy to read? “Why did you take the drawings?”
He looked at me quizzically. “I didn’t.”
That wasn’t the answer I expected. I had been so sure. “I…must have misplaced them then.”
“Then I’ll help you find them,” said Kenn, rising to his feet.
“No!” I said as I jumped up and grabbed his arm. My outburst surprised me as much as it did him. I let go, embarrassed. “I mean, you must have better things to do.”
He considered me for several moments, clearly troubled by my odd behavior. “You should rest. I’ll bring you something to eat.”
I watched him disappear down the hall, the corridors illuminating ahead of him on their own. I curled up in my bed with my hands cradled against my chest. I had almost convinced myself that I could be happy again, yet confusion had replaced that sentiment. If Kenn had not taken the drawings, who else was there? The fox? The idea was laughable. The drawings were easily twice as large as it. And why would a fox need them? Surely, I would have noticed if someone else was in the citadel.
I heard Kenn return, but pretended to sleep. The desk chair rasped softly against the floor as he pulled it next to the bed and creaked as he sat down. Several minutes passed before I heard the wisp of a book page turning. Was he afraid I might do something foolish in his absence? And if he were, could I really blame him? The bed’s warmth soon lulled me back to sleep.
The room was dark when I finally awoke. I waved a hand at the light next to the bed. It turned on obediently. Beneath it laid some fruit and Kenn’s book, but he was gone and the chair back in its place at the desk.
It would have been easier if I had died, not knowing what I now knew. Even the builders couldn’t stop what was coming, and all that was left were two broken worlds desperately trying to be whole again, but in all the wrong ways. Somehow, we had to find a way to heal ourselves before we’d ever be able to heal our two worlds. I wasn’t sure those of us in either world had the will or the strength anymore.
Wrapping myself in the bed’s blanket, I let my feet lead me to the cove chamber. I stood at the water’s edge as dawn lit the water above me. It was time to put my questions to rest. I pulled the rope attached to the bell. The clapper struck the side, sending vibrations through the rope as it rang out clear and resonant.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
I turned and saw the fox. “I need answers.”
“You won’t get them from Kenn.”
I hugged the blanket around me, suddenly chilled. “You don’t know that.”
The fox looked at me in what could only be taken as indignation. “Do you actually think he’s helping you, saving you, out of goodwill? He keeping you alive for his own ends.”
“And what might those be?” I had no useful skills in this world.
The fox sat down, apparently satisfied. “To reopen the doorway between our worlds, one that only he controls.”
“What would he gain from that?”
The fox laughed at me. “What all men desire: power. The others despise him not because of the humility of his actions, but because he lords over them through cruelty and coercion. He would do so in your world as well and live like a god.”
“But why does he need me?”
“You are the key,” said the fox, “that unlocks the door.”
“The door that opens one way.”
The fox nodded. “It can only work if you remain human. Untainted. Pure. If you became part of this world as the rest of us have, he would have no more use for you. He’s tried for years, but has failed each time. Until now.”
I knew Kenn was keeping something from me, but this? If Kenn was truly as untrustworthy and self-serving as the fox implied, then who’s to say the fox was any different? I turned around and rang the bell again.
“What are you doing?” growled the fox.
“I want to hear what Kenn has to say.”
The fox grumbled unintelligibly. “He’ll kill you once he knows you learned the truth.”
“I don’t believe that.”
The foxed slinked over to me, eyeing the water warily. “I can free you from this prison. Come with me. Now. Before Kenn returns.”
I glanced up at the submerged windows. Even through the water, I could see the brilliance of the sunlight, the warmth of which I would never feel so long as I remained in the citadel.
“Too late,” hissed the fox as it bounded away from me and into the building.
I turned back to the water just as Kenn broke the surface. He pulled himself from the water in front of me.
“Jianna, what’s wrong?”
I forced myself to look him straight in the eye. This was what I had wanted. “I need to know. Everything.”
Kenn’s eyes narrowed. “What is it you’re asking me?”
“Why do you really want me to stay human?”
His brow furrowed as he took in the full weight of my question and all it implied. He reached for my hand, but I backed away.
“I’m trying to protect you,” he said, letting his hand fall back to his side.
“Liar,” snarled the fox as it slinked from the building.
Kenn’s eyes widen in surprise. “Danu. How did you get here?”
The fox glared at him smugly as it paced in front of us. It stopped to look at me. “He’s afraid to tell you the truth.”
“What is she talking about?” Kenn asked me.
I looked from Kenn to the fox and back again. “That you’re just using me…to open the door between our worlds.”
He eyed Danu. “You told her this?”
Danu sat down on her haunches. “See. He doesn’t deny it.”
“It’s true then,” I breathed. The realization that the fox might be right constricted my throat as if hands themselves choked me. Was there no one left I could trust? I didn’t have the energy to hide my disappointment.
Kenn caught my gaze. “It’s the only way to heal our worlds.”
“More lies,” spat Danu. “He wants to dominate your world as he does this one.”
“I have no interest in such things,” countered Kenn. “I only want to mend what is broken, and I would no more force Jianna into helping me than I would have forced you.”
“How noble,” spat the fox. “A courtesy you surely didn’t extend to your kin.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Haven’t you wondered why he is the only serpent in these waters?” asked Danu. She gave me a toothy grin. “It’s because he killed them all.”
“That’s a lie,” hissed Kenn.
I regarded Danu. The image she presented shared no resemblance to the Kenn I knew. “You said he was once human.”
“Kin doesn’t mean the same thing here. It’s not tied solely to blood,” snarled Danu, clearly flustered. “Why do you continue to doubt me? Surely you can see him for what he is.”
I did, but I also finally saw the fox for what she was: a spiteful child who blamed the unfairness of life on everyone else—perhaps because the child she had been grew into this fox before first growing into an adult. Her bitterness had consumed her, leaving nothing but smoldering hate.
I took a step backward toward Kenn. “I pity you.”
Danu lunged at me, but Kenn transformed and came between us. His serpentine body knocked me down and undulated around me.
“You will not harm her,” said Kenn as he raised himself up.
Danu laughed at him. “Won’t I? She’s so very fragile. Just like the others.”
“It doesn’t have to be this way, Danu,” said Kenn. “You can still leave.”
“Leave?” Her claws scored the stone at her feet as she grew to the size of the beasts that had hunted me when I first arrived, her gaze filled with malice. “Leaving is what you do and you do it so well. So go…while I school this pretty little girl in the ways of things.”
Kenn’s tail coiled loosely around me as I stood, my blanket trapped beneath him.
“You know I won’t do that.”
“Why not? You were all too eager to leave me behind.”
“There was nothing more I could do for you. You had already changed too much.”
“And you think she hasn’t?” Danu sneered at me. “I’ve been here the entire time, watching her. Watching you with her. But no matter how much time you devote to her, she will never be content trapped in this prison. If you won’t release her, then I will.”
“It was you who poisoned that boy’s mind,” stated Kenn.
“His mind was as fragile as his body. And he was far too trusting, unlike this one.”
“And the man before him?”
“You should have know better than to bring him to the same place you took me.”
“You’ve made your choice then,” said Kenn.
Danu answered by surging forward, her maw eagerly snapping. Kenn met her halfway, his twisting body preventing her from gaining much purchase. That didn’t dissuade her. She lunged at him several times and nimbly darted away as she waited for an opening. When it came, she sprang over Kenn and came at me. Kenn whipped his tail around and slammed her into a wall. Danu raked her claws into him and squirmed free even as he tried to coil around her. She was far too agile and Kenn too slow out of water for that to work.
And blocking each of her attempts to come at me came at a cost. It left Kenn wide open to her attacks. Her claws ripped jagged tracks through his hide. Perhaps that was Danu’s plan all along. She knew Kenn would never let her harm me, even at his own expense.
Again, Danu rushed me. And again, Kenn blocked her, but this time she succeeded in burying her claws and teeth deep into his neck. Kenn flung himself against the pavestones as he struggled to crush her. I tried my best to stay out of the way, but it was difficult given Kenn’s length.
“The water!” I shouted. It was his only chance.
Kenn threw himself into the cove. His trashing made the water churn as if it boiled. He plunged into its dark depths, taking Danu with him.
I knelt at the water’s edge as the surface calmed. One minute passed into another and then another, and still there was no sign of Kenn. Was it possible for even him to drown? The thought chilled me in a way far colder than any winter I knew.
A faint smudge of paleness appeared amid the murkiness. After more than a minute, it continued to hang motionless in the water. It had to be Kenn, but why didn’t he surface? I had to know. Heart hammering, I stood up and dove in.
My downward momentum brought me to him. Blood wafted from his wounds. Even with the buoyancy of the water, he was far too heavy for me to move. I swam to Kenn’s head and pulled on his horns, gently shaking him. His eyes snapped open in alarm until they found me. I made a tugging motion and shook my head, hoping he would understand. The lids closed back over his eyes. Was he giving up?
Kenn’s whole body suddenly quivered and began to lose shape. Arms and legs emerged from his body, and his head rippled into that of a man’s. I wasted no time. I hooked my arms under his and swam us both to the surface.
With Kenn’s dead weight in my arms, I struggled to reach the submerged stairs, but managed to pull him into the shallows. It was then that I realized the extent of his injuries. His chest was shredded with deep gashes and puncture wounds, while bruises and scratches mottled the rest of him. I took Kenn under the arms and lugged him onto the pavestones until only his legs dangled in the water.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered to him.
I dashed into the building to retrieve the medical kit from my room and as many towels as I could carry. Kenn had not moved in my absence. I pressed the towels against his chest wounds to stem the bleeding as I rifled through the medical supplies for anything that smelled of alcohol. I dampened the towels with it. Kenn winced involuntarily, but didn’t wake. I dressed his wounds with ointment and gauze and then stuck a pain patch like the one he had given me below his collarbone.
Slinging the kit over my shoulder, I used my abandoned blanket as a litter to dragged Kenn to my room. Once there, I lifted him onto my bed as best I could. The effort left me winded. I rubbed my face as I caught my breath, trying to dispel the numbness growing inside me. The bandages on my hands were stained with his blood. Even my skin and clothing were streaked with it. I tucked the bed sheet around Kenn’s prone form. What little color he possessed had drained out of him. It was a wonder he was even alive. I drew the chair to the bedside and collapsed wearily into it. It was a vigil I was all too familiar with.
Kenn remained unconsciousness the next day. After re-dressing his wounds, I washed his blood from me, leaving ruddy water spots in the shower, and resumed my place at his bedside. Another day and then two passed before I saw a noticeable improvement in his injuries. Most had closed over, but his skin had taken on an odd translucent quality. I didn’t know what to make of it.
To fill the silence, I told him stories I remembered from my youth and of the mischief my brothers and I had perpetrated on our childhood friends. I told him all the minute, pointless details of my life, but I would have given up all those memories just for him to open his eyes.
As the fourth day ended, I finally ran out of words. I cursed my helplessness and let my head sink wearily onto my folded arms on the bed’s edge. I knew I had done all I could; yet, somehow it still wasn’t enough. Again.
Fingers touched my hair. I glanced up and was met by Kenn’s muted green eyes.
I took his hand. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head weakly, not understanding.
“I should have told you,” I said, “about the fox, but she seemed harmless.”
“Not your fault.” His voice rasped from disuse.
“How can you say that?”
“Danu was right. I failed her.”
“She made her choice,” I said. “Whatever she did after that point is no one’s fault but her own.”
“I could have done things differently.”
“But you have.”
A sad smile flashed across his face only to be replaced by a grimace. I moved to apply another pain patch, but he stopped me.
“That won’t help,” he said. “I need water.”
I rose to refill the empty pitcher at his bedside, but his hand wrapped around my wrist.
“That’s not enough.”
I shook my head, not understanding.
“I need the river…its water. It’s a part of me.”
I wasn’t sure what to do. I barely managed to get him out of the water as it was. But perhaps there was a simpler solution.
“The citadel’s water,” I said. “It must come from outside.”
Kenn nodded slightly.
“Can you walk?” I asked.
“I can try.”
I helped Kenn sit up and shift his legs to the bed’s edge. Even that exhausted him. He leaned heavily on me as I walked him down the hallway to the shower room, one agonizingly slow step at a time. The water turned itself on as I maneuvered Kenn into the nearest stall.
A low, barely audible sigh came from him as the water streamed over the both of us. Eyes closed, his painfully pale skin flushed from the water’s warmth, and the tension in his muscles gradually eased. He shifted some of his weight off me as he rested the flat of his hand on the wall in front of us.
After what seemed like an eternity, Kenn turned the water off. “Thank you.”
I helped him from the stall, but his wet skin made it difficult to keep a firm hold on him. There was no way we’d make it back to my room without some mishap. I sat him down on one of the room’s benches and headed to the nearest supply closet for towels. When I returned, Kenn was pealing off the gauze dressings from his chest wounds.
“You shouldn’t..,” I protested.
“I’ll be fine,” he said, “thanks to you.”
I draped a towel around his bare shoulders and sat down next to him, hiding my hands in the towels on my lap. Danu may have caused his injuries, but they were a result of my doubt. I slouched forward and regarded my bare feet. Kenn may not blame me, but I wasn’t prepared to stop blaming myself just yet. My sodden hair slid down the side of my face, obscuring my sight and dripping on the towels.
“I never should have listened to her,” I said.
The bench groaned as Kenn shifted on the bench beside me. “She could be persuasive, even as a child. Yet she didn’t sway you.”
“How she described you was contrary to everything I’d seen with my own eyes,” I said. “If she couldn’t be trusted on that, then everything else she said was suspect as well.”
I glanced at him through my hair. “The door?”
Kenn nodded. “To draw our worlds back together, the door between them needs to swing both ways. I can hold it open once it does, allowing our worlds to flow into each other once again, but I can’t unlock it from this side.”
“But I can.”
“Your subconscious knows how you crossed into this world.”
“And that will let me open the door from this side?”
“No,” admitted Kenn. “It’s more than that. You’ve retained your humanity even as this world has begun to change you.”
I sat up straight, stunned. “I thought the citadel prevented that.”
“From becoming like those outside these walls, yes,” he said. “This change is far more subtle. Unnoticeable even. You won’t lose your humanity in the process. It’s that dual nature that will allow you to unlock the door. You must be of this world, but separate from it. The door wouldn’t open if you were only human. And I wouldn’t be able to keep it open if I was only a serpent.”
“You’ve become partly human.”
Kenn nodded. “Both of us must be simultaneously of and between both worlds. Only then can the river pull them into convergence again.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“It’s not.” Kenn leaned back and rested his head on the wall behind him. “It took years to figure out that much. After that, it was a matter of waiting for someone like you to cross over, but I haven’t always moved quickly enough. Many were killed before I could get to them. Others, like Danu, were absorbed into this world. If she had just listened to me and stayed in the sanctuary…”
“Children don’t always do as they’re told.”
Kenn gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling. “I never understood what had twisted that boy’s mind. If I had, perhaps things would have ended differently. Even so, he wouldn’t be alive after this many centuries.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Just how old are you?”
“As old as the river.”
Somehow, this surprised me less than everything else that had happened since I arrived. I think a part of me already knew—perhaps the same part that knew how to open the door.
“Will it work?” I asked as I pulled my knees up on the bench between us.
Kenn contemplated me for several moments. “I don’t know. Our worlds have diverged so far from one another and are so close to collapse. The waters have filled with violent eddies as the last linkages twist and fray. I’ve tried to hold and bind them to give us more time, but they seem to sever almost as quickly as I mend them.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Consider this carefully, Jianna,” cautioned Kenn. “There’s no going back once we begin.”
“But this is what you wanted, what our worlds need.”
“True,” admitted Kenn, “but even if we succeed, it might take a lifetime. I don’t know whether there would be anything left of either one of us.”
“Everything ends,” I said. “You. Me. This world.”
“Are you saying I should let it?”
I shook my head. “Just that we can’t let the fear of the ending stop us from beginning.”
“You have changed,” said Kenn, “just not in the way Danu thought.”
I was momentarily taken aback, yet knew he was right. I no longer let things happen to me as some hapless victim. And I no longer willingly threw away my life because I didn’t think I deserved to live it. What exactly had changed in me or when it had happened, I didn’t know, but it felt good. I marveled at the grand irony of my life—and possibly my death. I had closed one door to save life and must now open another to do the same.
“What do I need to do?”
Lisa Langeland lives in Minnesota, but spent her youth in various locals in eastern South Dakota and, as a young child, in a central Ontario mining town. She has an insatiable curiosity and a laid-back, self-depreciating sensor of humor. She is also an amateur nature photography. Her fiction has appeared in New Myths.