I sensed the Juni River hours before we finally crested a hill and saw it glittering in the valley beneath us. A part of my soul begged me to urge my horse to a gallop to reach the riverbanks more quickly. I resisted, and instead savored the scent of the water as we slowly drew closer. It had been months and months since I’d visited a water of consequence. The descent into the valley was steep in places, and we took our time. Summer had a stronger hold on the valley than the moors or hills. At lunch, Ilya’s crowning achievement was goading Galo into telling one of the Angari bedtime stories that featured wicked elves. His second achievement was convincing his sister, Aurel, to tell an elven story in return. The discomfort that filled the glen dissipated slowly as everyone failed to get angry at the offensive stories. Ilya was still the only person who laughed because he thought it was funny, but there were a few real smiles.
We arrived late afternoon at the meadow where the Countess had predetermined to wait for the rest of her party. It was part of the river’s floodplain, and we had to ride down a particularly steep hill to get there. The grass was brilliant green, and tall trees lined the meadow and ventured to the riverbank. In the middle of the meadow someone had dug a fire pit and lined it with stones, but green grass was sprouting between the stones as if it’d been a while since anyone had stopped here. The road, Galo told me, was close by but hidden by a bend in the river.
The Juni River spread before us, wide and glittering, large pale rocks bursting from the water here and there like teeth of a truly unfortunate monster. I was pleased when Galo mentioned a series of pools a short way downriver which we could use to bathe before heading into the city. We unsaddled and made camp with a feeling of permanency that really wasn’t warranted. Still, the thought of an entire day without saddling a horse made the camp feel festive for man and beast alike. I helped with rubbing down the horses while others started working on the fire and arranging bedrolls, tack, and saddlebags around the pit.
Once the horses were seen to, I begged off to go relieve myself and headed into the woods downriver. I hadn’t gone terribly far out of sight before I saw the pools Galo had mentioned. The pale stone formed a shelf that jutted from the banks deep into the river. Bowls had been carved into the shelf close to the bank, far too uniform to have been the river’s doing. The water rolled over the shelf, filling the bowls and flowing through them clear as glass before tumbling back into blue-green depths. I pressed on a little further, getting past the shelf of rock, and really did find a place to relief myself before returning to the banks.
The Juni was strong, and deep, and ancient. She was cold and bright with snow from the Terrim Mountains, which she carried down to the Azulimar Sea. Well met, Lady of Moors and Mountains, I gave her a courtly greeting as I trailed my hand in the chill water.
Well met, Daiesenda. You taste of a hundred waters.
How did she know me? The “hundred waters” line I’d heard before from other rivers…but to recognize me as Daiesenda—Granddaughter of Ulmuren Daiesenda, King Under Daiesen. Then I remembered; My brother, Ayglos, had been through here already. He’d probably spent a good bit of time with the river since arriving in Gar Morwen. I caressed the current, asking permission to enter. A river such as this, old, with a voice so strong and distinct, should always be asked. She had nymphs of her own who had given her this voice. She granted my request, a gentle eddy of a laugh giving welcome.
Withdrawing, I retreated to a log and quickly shed my weapons and my clothes down to my under clothes, tucking it all in a careful bundle in the cleft of a tree. Then I walked into the river. The current moved around me, allowing me passage till I was deep enough to submerge. My nostrils sealed before the water closed over my head; its cold touch felt amazing on my face. My blue stripes began to bloom, and I dove to the river bottom, swimming and reveling in the feel of it. I had missed this.
Fish, large and small, flitted around me, their scales ranging from silver, to green, to ruddy. I swam deep, allowing the current to take me, then twisting out of it and swimming back to where I could just see the stone shelf. Diving and turning and weaving. I reveled in the motion as I played with the river. When I got tired, I hooked my fingers over a rock and lingered, letting my body sway in the current. Closing my eyes, I let my mind conjure memories while I rested. In my mind’s eye, the shining turquoise harbor of Cartahayna rose into view. Then the dark water of the Bandui River, gilded with fire. The stink of the kindly Tryber River. The glittering water of Galhara choked with flotsam. If I dug further in my mind, I found white sand, blue green expanse, and the scent of salt. The memory was fuzzier than I’d like. I felt the call of the sea trembling through the Juni’s waters—she was whispering about the beaches on her estuary—far from here. Sand. Marshes. A small harbor and a shoreline elsewhere dominated by cliffs. I could let go of the rock and she’d take me there. Sure and swift. I was tempted. Then adrenalin jolted through me, shattering my river-induced serenity. How long had I been out here? When I looked at the surface, the gold light of early evening was glittering above me.
I cursed silently. I hadn’t brought a towel. Drying off would be much harder without the sun. Not only that, but what if they had all panicked and gone hunting through the woods to find me? Cursing my foolishness again, I darted back toward the shore where I’d entered. Before I broke the surface, the river pressed me down. Wait.
Someone was sitting on the log on the river bank.
Between me and my knives.
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