“Well, Pratina? Are they … bloodrats?”
Pratina grimaced and shimmied backwards. Her head banged on the underside of the cabinet and her elbows scraped on the wooden floor. Her tunic — her favorite mauve tunic — caught on something. She stopped, shimmied to the side, and managed to slide out from beneath the cabinet without tearing anything. Her elbows were sore and dust covered her clothes.
She held up the little wooden stick, a bright red dropping impaled on one end. “Definitely bloodrats.”
Xandaral groaned, rubbing his hand across his forehead. Beside him, Ushina grimaced and pressed a hand to her expanding belly. She looked like she wanted to bolt from the room.
“Not to worry,” Pratina assured them. “The bloodrats would have to be taken care of well before the babe comes.”
She stood, brushing dust from her knee-length tunic and trousers (Why? I’m just going to get dirty again), and reached for the bag that she had set on the table. She tucked the dropping into one wax-lined pouch, then began pulling out other pouches. “I have just the thing. Some black pepper and ginger, a bit of turmeric and garlic, some icepowder, and a dash of fleshworm.”
Ushina backed up a step, one hand curling around her father’s elbow.
“Don’t go crawling around under any of the cabinets or inside the walls, and you’ll be fine. The pepper, ginger, turmeric, and garlic will attack their eyes and noses, the icepowder will slow their joints, and the fleshworm will leave them nothing but bones in a few days. I’ll return at the end of the week and clean up anything that remains — burn it in the Hall of the Ancestors — and give the whole place a good scrub with salt and water.”
She carefully measured the proper amount of each ingredient and mixed them together with a mortar and pestle. The fleshworm she added last, and used only the barest amount, careful not to get even a fleck of it on her skin. Laying the lid across the top of the mortar, she awkwardly crawled back under the cabinet, hunting around until she found the hole in the wall. Tipping the mortar and tapping it gently against the floor, she laid a line of reddish-grey powder across the entrance to the bloodrats’ nest. She added little piles near the wall in both directions, knowing that the creatures would stick to the shadows — until they scented something warm and newly-born to bite.
But they would never get the chance to taste Ushina’s child.
When the mortar was empty, she crawled back out from under the cabinet. This time, her blouse did rip.
Hiding a grimace, she stowed her tools away in her bag. She accepted a coin from Ushina, and bowed and pressed her hands together.
Ushina returned the gesture. “My thanks, Pratina. If you should meet Ramna on your return home, will you please reassure him? He will heed you more readily.”
“And please extend my thanks to Huush.” Ushina frowned, her expression a combination of confused and exasperated. “She gave Ramna a bag of bones the other day and insisted that I eat them. For the baby, I suppose.”
Behind her, Xandaral rolled his eyes.
“She did the same for me.” Pratina cleared her throat. “Latinal and Tirtala both came out strong and healthy. Ramna must have earned the shark-maids’ deepest respect for them to offer such a gift. I recommend that you grind up the bones and put them in your soup.”
Ushina blinked at her. “Oh.”
Hoisting her bag, Pratina settled her yellow veil atop her hair, pressed her hands together again, and headed for home.
She was stopped three times on the road: by Thaxan, who needed more ointment for his arthritic knees; by the priest, reminding her (again) that the pool in the Hall of the Ancestors had to be purified before the Rain Festival; and finally by Ushina’s husband Ramna, fresh-caught catfish and turtles slung over his shoulder in a net.
He bit his lip, hands twisting around the rope. “The midwife says all the signs point to a boy. If the bloodrats smell him ….”
Pratina patted his arm. “You needn’t fear. They shall be long dead by the time he is born. As dead as the Queen who created them.”
They both fell silent, Ramna shifting the fish uncomfortably.
“Yes, just so. Ehm, please extend my greetings to Huush and her sisters.”
“I shall. Ramna, why did Huush give you the bones?”
He flushed, digging his toes into the ground. “One of the younglings was caught in a net. I cut her free.” He pressed his hands together and bowed. “A good day to you, Pratina.” He scampered away, winding a path through the late afternoon crowd.
Pratina watched him. For a moment, she could taste those bones on her tongue, feeling them crack between her teeth, the marrow thick. She had gagged, but forced herself to keep eating.
For her children.
Grief rubbing at the edges of her mind, Pratina tugged at her veil and continued on towards the River Ghata, making her way through the swarm of fishers and birders coming in with the day’s catch. Half the citizens of Dehla were at the shore, trading coin and goods for that night’s dinner or tomorrow’s breakfast. Children ran here and there, chasing one another, giggling and throwing balls.
Pratina paused in the shade of a tree beside the river and watched the children for long, quiet minutes. An older girl led her little sister among the birders, showing her how to check the eggs. Two brothers got into a fight over an odd bug, breaking off to give chase when the insect made its escape. A little girl tossed her ball too hard, breaking into tears when it became caught on the awning of a stall; but then her brother reached up to retrieve it, and the little girl smiled and hugged him.
At that sight — such a simple display of affection — Pratina’s grief broke through, bringing memories and pain. Latinal and Tirtala frowning over some alchemical formula or another; teasing and cajoling one another as they jumped among the trees for mangoes; spears held high, waist-deep in the river as the shark-maids drove fish towards them; and that last morning as they bid farewell, too stubborn and brave to let her tears dissuade them from joining Ixander’s rebellion.
A child cried loudly, startling her. A man began to sing. A dog scrambled passed, bumping her leg as it raced towards the dock. Flies buzzed around her face. Noise, scent, color.
Inhaling sharply, she straightened her veil and found the well-worn path along the water’s edge. Parakeets and myna birds warbled at her from the trees, and she caught the flash of a golden jackal from the corner of her eye. Monkeys chattered and, somewhere off in the jungle, an elephant trumpeted. When she finally reached her little floating house, she crossed the bridge, and the familiar touch of the wood eased her pain, at least a little.
Tucking away the pouches in their silver-lined chest, she washed her hands and arms in salt water, all the way up to her elbows. With a candle and a pair of mirrors, she carefully inspected all of her exposed skin. Satisfied that no fleshworm had taken root, she gathered up a piece of flatbread and a mango, and went to check her fishtraps. Of the three which hung off the back deck, two held fish too small to eat; those she let back into the Ghata. The third, though, held a fat golden mahseer.
Grinning, her stomach rumbling, she speared the fish; a quick death. She tossed some sticks into the large clay bowl on the deck, added a handful of flashfire, and soon the leaf-wrapped fish was cooking while the flatbread warmed nearby.
Pratina dropped onto a stool to watch the flames and wait.
Friends, useful work, a roof over her head, a full belly.
A good life, she reminded herself, plucking absently at the tear in her blouse. A good life, and enough.
A splashing in the water, just out of sight below the edge of the deck.
Pratina looked up, suddenly realizing that the sun had disappeared beyond the jungle. The sky above was deep purple, the stars opening their eyes to look down on the world below.
“A good evening to you, Huush,” she called out.
The shark-maid heaved herself up onto the deck, clawed hands digging into the wood, long dark hair clinging to her body. Her sleek skin glistened in the light of the fire, darkest grey on the back fading to pearly white at her belly. Her dorsal fin was a sharp swoop, and her knife-like teeth flashed. Eyes that seemed too large for her face studied Pratina for a long moment.
“And to you, alchemist.”
Pratina hid a flinch and held out the mango. Huush’s mouth opened wide in delight. She snatched up the fruit, holding out a dripping net in exchange.
“Duck eggs. We found many nests among the grasses near Hashasha’s battle with the scarred crocodile.”
Pratina had no idea where that was, but nodded her thanks, anyway. “They shall make for a delicious breakfast.”
Huush tore into the mango, yellow juice spraying. “A tale, alchemist.”
Pratina felt the corner of her mouth tick up, not even annoyed that Huush had again addressed her by that dangerous title. Shark-maids never asked. They always commanded. That had taken some getting used to on Pratina’s part.
Of course, the children — so young when they first met Huush — had adopted her speech pattern and tried to order Pratina around themselves.
That had not gone so well.
“A tale ….” Pratina’s voice trailed off for a moment. “A tale of Latinal and Tirtala, perhaps? Of their adventures with Ixander of the White Hair, and their battles against the Saffron Queen and her alchemical monsters.”
Huush’s face wrinkled into a frown, a puddle of mango juice in her cupped hands. “I have heard this tale.”
Pratina smiled sadly. “But it is a grand tale composed of many other tales. Have I told you yet of the Winter Monsoon? Of how Latinal and Tirtala turned the rain to ice and froze the River Sasvata? Of how Ixander upon his elephant battled the Handmaiden of the Saffron Queen, ice cracking beneath them with every step and trumpet?”
Huush slurped up the mango juice. Wiping the back of her hand across her mouth, she shook her head. “Tell me this tale.”
Pratina set aside the duck eggs and leaned forward on her stool, the fire warm against her skin. “It is the fifth year of the rebellion, and Ixander and his army, hungry and tired, have taken shelter in ancient caves along the banks of the Sasvata ….”
Her belly full, her voice raw, Pratina bid Huush a good night. After changing into a simple shift, she lit a candle on her ancestral altar, offered prayers of remembrance and thanks, and crawled into bed.
She dreamt of bloodrats with teeth as sharp and cold as ice chomping, chewing, clawing at her children.
A scream woke her, a horrible high-pitched shriek of rage and pain.
She thought at first that she was screaming, herself.
Then the sound came again, rolling across the river. There was frantic splashing, and her floating house surged up and fell back down again.
Throwing herself out of bed, Pratina stumbled as the house heaved again. Grabbing at the wall, she staggered towards the back deck.
Another violent up-and-down as a huge wave rolled beneath the house and crashed into the shore, knocking the bridge back and forth. Pratina caught the deck railing, the wood driving the breath from her belly as she rammed into it.
She squinted across the water, left, right, left again.
There. Far out in the river, off to the right. Shark-maids. Dozens of them, bone swords lifted high as they arced up into the air and dove back into the water, shrieking, teeth bared in fierce snarls. Their dark hair streamed behind them, inky banners. Their tails snapped.
But what were they —
Something red rose out of the water, so red that it was almost black. A great head, nearly the size of Pratina’s house, dead and dying shark-maids dangling from its mouth. Two red-gold eyes, cold, hungry. A barbed tail curved above the river, crashed down. And then the head was gone, slipping into the dark of the Ghata, leaving only blood and screaming shark-maids.
“One of the Saffron Queen’s monsters. Had to have been,” Thaxan whispered.
Pratina did not respond, too busy watching Xandaral and the priest and the other village elders who had gathered on the steps of the Hall of the Ancestors. They huddled close together, shoulders tight, their backs to the crowd which had assembled in the town square; a crowd which was growing increasingly restless. Children shifted in their parents’ arms; adults muttered and hissed. Pratina spied Ushina and Ramna near the steps, their heads bent together, whispering.
“Ancestors willing, it is the only one of its kind,” Thaxan continued. When Pratina still did not answer, he prodded her with his walking stick. “Yes? Don’t you agree?”
“Mmm? Perhaps. The Queen did enjoy twisting the ancestral laws of nature.”
Thaxan was silent for so long that Pratina thought he would keep quiet this time. She turned her attention fully upon the elders. The priest was poking Xandaral in the chest, his eyes narrowed in fear.
“Such a horrible, horrible sound,” Thaxan said. He shook his head. “I hope I never hear its like again. Do you know how many shark-maids were lost?”
Pratina sank back on her heels, looking at Thaxan in surprise. “Eleven. Huush said eleven of her sisters were lost. I did not — I did not realize that you cared for the shark-maids.”
Thaxan blinked at her. “Of course I care for them. If not for them — ”
“Good people of Dehla!”
Xandaral was facing the crowd now, his hands raised. Silence settled over the square.
“My friends, last night a terrible tragedy struck the daughters of the river. Many of their number were lost. It is the decision of the council that a portion of our catch shall be set aside for the shark-maids, that their suffering might be eased. Prayers shall be offered within the Hall on their behalf.” Xandaral lowered his hands, nodded once, and turned back to the rest of the council.
“That’s all?” Pratina yelled. “Their sisters are dead! They are frightened and grieving, and all you offer are a few extra fish?”
“Pratina — ”
“What if the monster returns?”
“It is in the river!” Xandaral flapped a hand towards the Ghata. “We cannot fight it there, and it cannot come on to land!”
“How do you know?” Pratina snapped, and a shiver swept through the crowd. Children whimpered. Anxious whispers filled the air. “And is that your excuse for doing nothing? It cannot come onto land. It is no threat to us! We are safe! Ha!” Pratina snarled, her lips pulling back. “I expected better of the elders of Dehla! Our children went into battle against the Saffron Queen herself, and you cannot bring yourself to face one over-grown snake?”
Beside her, Pratina was vaguely aware of Thaxan humming in approval. Around them, the crowd continued to shift and murmur.
“Enough!” Xandaral bellowed. He sliced his hands through the air. “The decision has been made. Fishers and birders, you will leave a tenth of your catch with Ramna to be distributed to the shark-maids.”
“Coward!” Thaxan bellowed.
Pratina jumped at the sound, staring at the older man in surprise.
He coughed, thumped his chest, and yelled again, waving his walking stick for emphasis. “Cowards, the lot of you! If not for the shark-maids, we would all be dead. Dehla would not exist! You remember, Xandaral, don’t you? You remember when our sisters and brothers and even our parents went off to fight the Queen, convinced that her time had come because a comet appeared in the sky! Well, it was not to be, was it? No. The Queen and her armies slaughtered our kin, and then she burned our fields and orchards and poisoned our wells. We would have died, starved, except for the shark-maids. They swam for miles up and down the Ghata, hunting and trapping, bringing back fish and turtles and eggs. For three years they fed us, until our fields regrew and our wells were cleaned.” His stick swung around to thump Pratina in the hip. “By Pratina’s grandfather, Ramnellan. He escaped the Queen’s purges, came here, took care of us — as Pratina does now!”
Thaxan’s voice broke into a series of rasping coughs. It was the only sound in the square. Pratina laid her hand on Thaxan’s shoulder, blinking rapidly, her throat tight.
“No.” Ushina waddled up the steps of the Hall. She directed a glare at her father, then turned to face the crowd. Her gold and white veil was bright in the morning sun. “My house will not share our catch with the shark-maids.” Ramna was nodding. She raised her voice to be heard over the groans and shocked gasps of the crowd. “We will fight alongside them, and kill this monster before it strikes again. Pratina …. what would you have us do?”
Pratina bit her lip as all eyes turned upon her. Thaxan huffed a dry chuckle and patted the hand that still rested on his shoulder.
“Yes, alchemist, what is your plan?”
They began on the shore of the Ghata, offering up prayers for aid to the ancestors. Huush and a handful of her sisters waited in the shallows, circling until they were done. Then barrels were brought out and filled with river water. One, two, three at a time, the shark-maid young were escorted to the surface from their hidden nest and bundled into the barrels; some of them whimpered, high-pitched noises that set Pratina’s teeth on edge. The barrels were carefully loaded onto carts and taken to the Hall, where the young were given shelter in the ritual pool.
Next were the nets. Ramna supervised while all of the fishers brought their nets together, spread them out on the ground, and began sewing them together. They used anything they could find, from ropes to scraps of silk and linen, weaving and bundling until a single gigantic net spread across the grass and dirt.
Xandaral, shamed by his daughter, led a small party into the jungle, axes over their shoulders and ropes in their hands. It did not take them long to find the trees they needed, growing tall and strong.
While they worked, Pratina hunted. She dug up roots in the jungle, climbed trees for sun-kissed flowers, pulled grasses from the shallows of the river, and harvested mushrooms and the leavings of bats from the depths of cool caves. It all went into her clay bowl — along with her entire supply of flashfire and just a bit of fleshworm — chopped, powdered, burned, and boiled into a thick yellowish goop.
Her grandfather had never written down any of his alchemical formulas. Perhaps that was why he had survived the Saffron Queen’s purges when so many others had died. But he had taught the formula to Pratina’s mother, who had taught it to Pratina, who had taught it to her own children.
Pratina stared down into the bowl. The smell made her throat spasm and the smoke made her skin itch.
She hoped the bards were wrong. Prayed that they were wrong; prayed that Latinal and Tirtala had fallen to sword or arrow or axe or drowned in a cool, green river; prayed that they had not been taken from her by everfire, consumed by the very blaze they had set to finally destroy the Queen and her palace of monsters. That fire burned still, and would burn for another century yet.
As the sun sank towards the west, she carefully picked up the clay bowl and made her way back to Dehla.
Ramna and a handful of other fishers sat in their boats, scattered across the river. The shark-maids circled in the water, their dorsal fins occasionally slicing above the surface. Night came, and with it the low howls of wolves and the snarls of wildcats. A tiger roared.
And they waited.
Pratina sat at the end of the dock, her legs crossed, hands resting on her knees. Her veil had fallen and pooled around her throat. Thaxan sat on a low stool behind her, tapping his walking stick. She could smell his arthritis cream. She didn’t need to turn around to see the rest of the villagers; she could feel them, huddled in small groups, coils of rope and axes and bows clutched in their hands.
And they waited.
The moon was a high, thin crescent when Ramna raised his lantern. He waved it back and forth, back and forth. His boat swung around in the water, lifting up and down, settling. Then another lantern on another boat, the vessel twisting and bouncing.
The shark-maids disappeared.
Pratina stood slowly, eyes straining. Thaxan stopped tapping his staff.
A third lantern, and this time the boat jumped violently, nearly spilling the two fishers into the Ghata.
A low hissing shriek bubbled up out of the river, skittering across the water. Birds took to panicked flight and every hair on Pratina’s body stood on end. Her heart pounded. Sweat dampened her hands.
Dorsal fins carved through the river, gleaming black in the moonlight.
A shadow in the water. Cold reddish-gold eyes.
Pratina squeaked and stumbled back into Thaxan. He caught her, clutching her arm. Huush had said nothing about —
More shadows, the shark-maids circling the monster. Tighter and tighter, poking, evading, nagging, staying just out of reach of its mouths. Leading it, tempting it closer to shore.
The water bubbled and heaved. One head rose out of the Ghata, sharp teeth bared in a snarl. Then a second head. And a third, dripping water and river grasses.
Pratina’s breath caught and she stumbled back again, leaning to look up, up, up.
“Now,” she whispered.
The first head swung towards her and the mouth opened wide. A hideous, bone-quaking roar erupted from its throat, shaking the dock beneath her feet.
Pratina fell to her knees. She drew a breath and screamed, “Now!”
Behind her, axes cracked down. Ropes split, racing across the ground. Logs lifted out of the river, groaning, dragging up the net stretched between them. The net — a slimy yellow — pulled tight, arcing through the water to wrap around the monster from beneath and behind. The beast thrashed, heads swinging wildly. Its barbed tail whipped, slipping through a hole in the net to slash at the shark-maids. Blood stained the water. With a loud crack, the logs locked into place, upright, the ropes that connected them to the net taut and straining.
Pratina twisted on her knees, hunting the crowd. “Xandaral! Now!”
The elder lifted his arm. “Archers! Light!”
Fires flared to life, the archers setting flaming arrows to bows.
The monster roared again, all three mouths wide.
Her ears were bleeding.
Xandaral dropped his arm, his order to “Loose!” lost beneath the horrible noise. Arrows flew through the air, streaming light and sparks. They slammed into the monster, piercing its reddish-black hide. It flailed madly.
The yellow goop hissed and flashed. The everfire sparked. Golden flames raced up and down the netting, enveloping the monster. It shrieked and thrashed, one gigantic head diving towards the dock. The net caught, began to tear.
Pratina grabbed Thaxan’s hand, launched herself back to her feet, and dragged him towards the shore. He was yelling something that she couldn’t hear.
The dock shook and splintered behind them, wooden fragments flying in all directions. Water surged around her ankles, her calves, her knees. She fell, pulling Thaxan down with her. She crawled, whimpering.
Too much noise, too much light.
Hands grabbed her shoulders and pulled her onto dry land. She flopped around, her feet slipping, turning in time to see the ropes that held the net rip free. One log broke, rolling into the river as the monster surged back and down, trying to make for deeper water.
But it didn’t matter how deep the water was. The net would continue to burn, the fire spreading to the monster itself as it thrashed and smeared everfire across its skin.
Shark-maids appeared along the remains of the dock, holding their bone swords high. Ushina and others rushed forward, carrying small bottles and bundles of burning grasses. They smeared the bottles of everfire across the edges of the blades and set them aflame.
Burning swords in hand, the shark-maids dove back into the water, tails kicking hard.
Shadows and light, swirling, wild, the river frothing and clawing at the shore, blood and chunks of flesh, the shark-maids circling with their burning bone swords, circling, slashing, circling.
And then, gradually, the river calmed. The sounds of the Ghata at night returned: the lap of water against the shore, the call of birds in the trees and of monkeys chattering back and forth, the plop of turtles slipping into the river.
Her body aching, Pratina pushed herself to her feet. Ushina pressed close to her side, hands curled protectively beneath her belly.
And they waited.
A splash, and Huush lifted herself out of the water, one clawed hand digging into the ruins of the dock. She held a chunk of meat in her other hand, her grin a sharp slash of teeth.
“Victory!” she shouted. “Now, we feast!”
The Rain Festival. The monsoons would begin in a few days. Acrobats tumbled around the square, children ran from booth to booth in search of sweet flatbread and candied fruits, and monkeys stole anything they could reach. On the steps of the Hall of the Ancestors, actors performed the Rite of the Seasons. Xandaral and some of the other elders looked on in approval, while the priest hovered nearby, ready to lead them all inside for the blessing of the pool.
Pratina held a little pitcher in her hands, just large enough to carry home the small amount of water she would need for her ancestral altar. Others carried much larger pitchers, or, in the case of some of the children, just cups.
There was a change to the festival this year. Once their pitchers and cups were full, the priest would lead them all down to the Ghata. There, they would meet the shark-maids and share a drink of the blessed water.
The shark-maids had promised to share something from their own sacred rites, as well. Pratina had no idea what it might be, but hoped that it wasn’t raw monster meat.
Bones? Monster bones? Perhaps she should warn the expectant women of the village.
She spied Ushina and Ramna among the stalls. She could only smile as yet another merchant pulled Ramna aside to congratulate him on his appointment to the council of elders — “And at such a young age!” Each time, Ramna blushed and looked down at his feet, while Ushina squeezed his hand, face glowing with pride.
The ground trembled beneath her feet, a soft and steady beat.
The crowd at the edge of the square shifted, clumping together and then splitting apart.
An elephant came into view, its tusks capped in gold, its hide covered in swirls of red and blue paint. A column of horses followed, the soldiers in battered, mismatched leathers and silks. A man sat upon the elephant’s back, and his white hair shone in the sun.
Xandaral ran out of the crowd, waving his hands and bowing. The elephant slowed to a stop and the man bent down. Xandaral bowed some more, waving a hand in Pratina’s direction.
Everyone looked at her.
The man climbed down from the elephant and walked across the square towards her. When he was a few steps away, he stopped.
Ixander of the White Hair pressed his hands together and bowed. “Pratina, alchemist, mother of Latinal and Tirtala. They told me many stories of you during the years we fought together. It is an honor to finally meet you.”
This close, she could see the lines of grief and weariness that cut deep into his face, the tremble in his hands, and the slight limp that hindered his left leg.
She inhaled, pushing down her embarrassment. “Your hair is not as white as it is in the songs.”
He started in surprise, then grinned. “Yes, just so.”
“We will go down to the river soon to celebrate with the shark-maids. Would you join me? I will introduce you to Huush. And then … after ….” Her throat closed and her mouth went dry.
“Latinal and Tirtala were two of my closest friends, and two of the bravest people I have ever met. I will gladly share with you any stories you may wish to hear.”
Unable to speak, Pratina could only press her hands together and bow in thanks.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]