The River's Eye
By Matthew D. Ryan
Gahrin knelt at the edge of his mother’s bed and wept.
“Do not weep,” she said, her voice thin and papery. “I have lived a good life. The Gilded Fields await me on the other side.” She smiled weakly, then added, “Your father waits for me there.”
His uncle, Darhrin, placed a hand on Gahrin’s shoulder. “It is time, boy,” he said. “Give her your gift. Then let her pass in peace.”
Gahrin reached into his pocket and pulled out the necklace fashioned from seven smoothed stones he and his friend, Sivarda, had made. They had collected the stones from the banks of the river Skri and had spent three whole days working on the gift. He instinctively clutched one of the polished stones as if to keep it for himself. The moment he gave his mother this necklace, he was admitting the inevitable. He was letting her go.
He looked in her eyes, forced a smile, then wiped a final tear from his eye. Reaching out, he gently placed the necklace over her head. She coughed, when he adjusted her head. But there was no need to worry. She was beyond the point of worry.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “Now, go. Live your life and remember your mother with fondness.” She drew a last shuddering breath, then lay still.
“She’s gone,” Gahrin said. “Forever.”
Sivarda ran her fingers through her black hair and tried to be philosophical. “It was her time,” she said.
“My uncle is taking me with him when he leaves,” Gahrin continued. “I won’t see you ever again.” He stared at her as if trying to memorize every detail of her face.
She frowned. She had expected his news, but that did not make it any easier. “Then this is goodbye,” she said, again trying to be philosophical, even though inside her heart felt like it was cracking. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a polished blue quartz crystal. She handed it to him. “Take this to remember me. I call it, The River’s Eye.”
“But I have nothing to give you,” he said, taking the stone.
She looked demurely down at her feet. “Perhaps… perhaps… a good-bye…” She steeled herself, finding courage within. “A good-bye kiss,” she finally managed.
His look softened, if imperceptibly. He fidgeted, red-faced, for a moment, then quickly leaned forward and touched her lips with his. “Good-bye,” he said, then turned and hurried off.
She watched his retreating back, savoring the bittersweet emotion for a moment. Finally, she turned and walked back to her house.
For some time, Sivarda returned in thought to that day, the last she saw of her friend. She remembered his kiss, the gentle press of his lips on hers, and her heart ached in longing. But time has a way of erasing old things. Eventually, her memory of Gahrin began to fade, and she realized she must let him go. She grew into a young woman, one in need of a husband, who could not afford to lose herself in childish fantasies. As the years passed, she continued to blossom, her beauty becoming evident to all who saw her. Many suitors came to call upon her, some that gained her interest for a time, many that did not.
So it was, that on her twentieth birthday, she found herself alone, longing for love. She had rejected yet another suitor, severing the relationship after deciding that, though the man was physically attractive, there was no emotional depth, no spark of passion. And, wishing to be alone, she took a walk along the edge of the river Skri.
On the outskirts of town, in a great tower of carved obsidian, lived the sorcerer Eskarenon, a man feared by many. Although he held no political office, he still wielded enormous influence in the town and the surrounding region. Some believed he had bewitched the mayor preventing her from ever taking action or making a decision that went against his interests. The truth of the matter, though, was simple fear. She commanded only men with swords, and steel was no match against magic.
On rare occasions, when not studying his dark arts, Eskarenon would take walks through the fields around town. On one such occasion, as he walked along the river Skri, he spied a young woman ahead. He recognized her as he approached: Sivarda Shenlee.
“Greetings, young lady,” he said.
She turned to look at him. Seeing her before him, a grown woman in her prime, he nearly gasped at her beauty. The curve of her hips, her well-formed breasts, and her dark radiant hair that fell in waves around her shoulders filled his heart with a ravening desire. It had been a long time since he had been so stirred by passion.
“Greetings sir,” she replied, her eyes widening.
She knows me, he thought. She knows what I am and what I can do. “A beautiful day, is it not?” he said, trying to sound casual.
“I am sorry, sir,” she said. “But I have wandered too long. I must return home.”
“I shall accompany you,” he said, and matched his stride to hers.
She walked briskly and spoke little. But he walked beside her and did his best to make conversation. Finally, they reached her house and she vanished inside.
Through the following weeks, Eskarenon paid repeated visits to the Shenlee household. The Shenlees were polite, the girl’s parents reserved, yet a trifle on edge. They served him tea and crackers on every visit, but Sivarda said little.
She seemed withdrawn and pensive. After the appointed time, he asked for her hand in marriage.
Politely, she declined, saying, “My dear sir, although it would be a great honor to be made your wife, I feel I must say no. Perhaps it is simply my restless youth, but I feel it is too soon yet for me to get married.”
“I have wealth,” he said. “I have power. What more do you want?”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said, “but I feel nothing for you. Please go.”
Privately enraged, Eskarenon did not respond at first. He nodded his head sagely and said, “As you wish, my lady. I will heed your answer for now. Perhaps in time, though, you will change your mind.” Then, he went off to be alone.
He retired to the top of his tower, and in the dark of night, he labored, working his magics. He called to the cold autumn wind, and it wrestled with trees. He called to the forces of the earth, and they pulsed with power. And he called to the waters of the River Skri, ‘til they called out in answer. With seven drops of his own blood, he sealed the spell and the empty halls of his tower echoed with his laughter.
Sivarda awoke the next day and found herself swimming in water. Amazed, she soon discovered that her hands had grown webbings to help her swim, her neck gills so she could breathe, and her eyes special lids so she could see quite clearly. To her dismay, however, she found that she could no longer walk on land.
Then, Eskarenon came to her again at the edge of the bank of the river Skri. “My love,” he said, “Do you find me more agreeable now? I will release you from your bondage if you agree to be my wife.”
“Never!” Sivarda cried. “I would rather grow old and die alone.”
“As there are no other river nymphs within a hundred miles of here, you may just get your wish,” Eskarenon said. Turning, he walked away, leaving Sivarda alone in the waters of the river to mourn for her lost life.
While Sivarda was growing up and becoming accustomed to suitors, Gahrin grew into a young man. Although his uncle Darhrin did his best to raise him, Gahrin had difficulties. He grew to be a recluse, preferring the company of books and scrolls of lore to that of other people. Intelligent, he learned much of the arts and of magic. As for women, he avoided them. For what could love bring, except pain and loss?
The time came, however, when his uncle passed into the Gilded Fields, leaving his tower and his fortune to the young man. For weeks Gahrin walked through the halls of the tower alone, seeing no one, speaking to no one. Inside his heart felt colder and colder until he felt consumed by an ever-growing emptiness. Something was wrong. Something was missing and he did not know what.
For days, he roamed the tower, restlessly ransacking its old library and its many scrolls, looking for a spell or incantation to solve the puzzle. Then, Gahrin realized, for the first time in his life, he was completely alone, and he found that, oddly, he missed the sound of another human voice. He sat down and began to weep.
Finally, he arose and went to his room. He found The River’s Eye in the small silver coffer he had placed it in so many years ago. He held it in his hand; he felt its smooth contours when he clenched his fist. And he resolved to find the young girl who had given him the stone, to find the girl whom he had once loved.
Gahrin returned to the village of his youth. He found that much had changed since he had left: two new roads had been built with a handful of houses, the elm sapling in the town square had grown into a mighty tree, and the village graveyard held a dozen more stones. He did recognize the village tavern, however; The Swan had always been a busy place, although not one that he frequented in his youth. But he was a man, now, and he needed information.
He approached the tavern, pushed open its door and stepped inside. He counted five patrons, three men and two women, sitting at tables scattered around the room. In the corner, a small fire burned in a fireplace to ease the early autumn chill. He walked up to the bar and sat.
Pulling three silver coins from his pouch, he motioned to the barkeep. “I’d like a tankard of ale and a bit of mutton,” he said.
The barkeep, a middle-aged, portly man with a bald head and a greasy white apron, nodded; he poured Gahrin an ale, then disappeared into the kitchen to prepare his food. He returned a few minutes later with a metal plate holding three thick slices of mutton. He set the meal down in front of Gahrin, then turned to go.
Gahrin reached out and grabbed the edge of the man’s shirt. “One moment, if you would,” he said. “I am looking for someone.”
“You are? Eh?”
“Sivarda Shenlee,” Gahrin continued. “Do you know her?”
“Do I know her?” the barkeep replied sounding somewhat incredulous. “Everyone knows her. She’s been the talk of the town for the past month and a half.”
Feeling elated that he had such good fortune so soon, Gahrin pressed for more. “Why?” he asked.
The barkeep explained what he knew, what everyone knew: that she had been cursed by the evil wizard Eskarenon and transformed into a river nymph. Once a beautiful woman with a promising future, she now dined on nothing but fish and lived beneath the water. Gahrin’s heart sank at the news.
“Where can I find her?” he asked, quietly but firmly.
“In the river Skri,” the barkeep responded. “Where the river bends.”
The next day, Gahrin went out in search of Sivarda. He followed the river south to the place where it bent off toward the west before continuing onward. He stopped several yards from the river bank and stared out into the water.
She will remember me, he thought. She must remember me.
He took one more step toward the river. Then another. Finally, resolving himself to the task, he walked the remaining distance, knelt by the edge of the river, and tossed a stone in; it disappeared in the rushing torrents.
He waited, but nothing happened.
He tossed another stone in.
This time a flurry of bubbles arose after the stone entered the water. A moment later, a woman’s figure rose halfway out of the torrents, dressed in what looked to be little more than a nightgown. Stunned by her alien, yet alluring, beauty, Gahrin simply gaped for a moment.
“Well,” she said, “Who might you be? Another suitor looking for a miracle? If so, you’ve come a long way for nothing. Eskarenon was quite thorough. Only he can break the spell.”
“Si.. Sivarda,” he finally managed to say.
At the sound of his voice, she paused and looked at him, scrunching her face as if to study him. “Do I know you?”
“It’s me, Gahrin,” he said.
“Gahrin?” she asked, still wearing a quizzical expression. “The name sounds familiar, but I…”
She doesn’t remember me, he thought. How could she forget me? We had a moment…But it was just a moment, he knew, and it was so very long ago. All that remained was a childhood dream. And real life is not made of dreams. He reached into his belt pouch, and pulled out The River’s Eye. He opened his hand and held it out to her. The small, blue stone glinted in the pale light.
“I remember that stone,” she said. “The River’s Eye. Gahrin. Gahrin! You look so different!. I… I… Why are you here?” Her eyes glistened.
“I came for you,” he said.
Two tears slid slowly down her cheeks. “You came for naught. I am cursed and cannot step on land. My whole life is limited to this river.”
“But its just a spell—“ he began.
“A spell without a counter-spell,” she said. “Eskarenon told me himself—he used his own blood when he cast it, so only he can remove it.”
“Oh,” Gahrin said. He bowed his head and thought for a moment.
“We were young, then, Gahrin,” Sivarda said. “I’m flattered and honored that you came, but there is nothing for you here. Go. Live your life. Remember me fondly, but live your life.”
“You’re the second woman I’ve known to give me such advice,” he said. “And this time I’m inclined not to take it. I wish to live my life with you.”
“And I with you,” she replied. “But there is nothing that can be done.”
“Do you mean that?” he asked. “You wish to be with me?”
She looked at him, her blue eyes filled with sorrow. “Yes, my old friend. My old love. But—“
“And if I found a way for us to be together?” he asked, desperately grasping for some thread of hope.
“I would be honored,” she said, “but nothing can be done.”
The next day Gahrin returned to the river. And the next. And the next.
Every day he returned to the same spot, sitting down on the bank and letting his feet dangle in the cold, rushing water. Every day, Sivarda would come to him. And they would talk, discussing all that happened to them in those years they were apart. Their old friendship rekindled, as did their old love. Although it could not be consummated, their love grew stronger in spite of the curse that separated them. And through this all, The River’s Eye bore witness. Gahrin brought it to the river every day; he held it in his hand as they talked. He could feel their love pour into it, place its mark upon it, and change the very essence of the stone. Every night he placed the stone beneath his pillow and dreamed pleasant dreams of Sivarda.
When not with Sivarda, he spent the rest of his waking hours in endless research, looking for a way to unravel her curse. He pored over books and scrolls, spent long nights in quiet deliberation, but still could not find a solution to the dilemma.
One day, as he approached the river, he saw another figure standing there. It was Eskarenon, dressed in a black robe, arms folded beneath his chest. Sivarda stood a short distance off in the river. She, too, had her arms folded beneath her chest as she glared at the older wizard.
“I’ve told you before, Eskarenon, my answer is and always will be no,” Sivarda said.
“Do you prefer this life? Living among the fish?” Eskarenon asked.
“I have found some contentment,” she said, glancing toward Gahrin as he approached.
Eskarenon turned his head to stare at Gahrin, his eyes flashing angrily. “And who are you? Do you come to meddle in my affairs?”
“No. I am just an old friend of Sivarda’s.”
“An old friend, eh?” Eskarenon said. “Or a forlorn suitor-to-be.” He began to laugh. “Begone boy. Only I can remove the spell.”
“Or your death,” Gahrin said coldly.
Eskarenon narrowed his eyes. He took a step back and with a wave of his hand was surrounded by a golden aura, ready for battle. “Is that a threat?” he asked.
“Not at all,” Gahrin replied, gritting his teeth. Oh, what he would give to give this cretin justice. “I was merely commenting on the pre-requisites for removing a blood curse.”
“You know something of the arts,” Eskarenon said. “I’m going to enjoy this.” He lifted his hands above his head.
“Wait,” Gahrin said, raising a hand in a placating manner. “I have no wish to fight.”
“So? Why should I not slay you were you stand?”
Gahrin knew he was not Eskarenon’s equal in sorcery, but he was not about to abandon Sivarda to him. Suddenly, he had an idea. He drew forth The River’s Eye. “This stone is dear to her heart. It is of no use to me with your curse intact, save as ransom for my life.”
“Gahrin, no! You mustn’t,” Sivarda said.
Eskarenon looked shrewdly at Sivarda. “I see you speak the truth. It is dear to her.”
“Surely, a wizard as powerful as you could make ample use of that connection,” Gahrin said. His heart started beating rapidly, but outwardly he kept his features calm. “In exchange for my life,” he said, holding the blue stone before him.
Eskarenon snatched it from Gahrin’s hand and held it up to examine in the sunlight. “I accept your offer,” he said to Gahrin. He turned to Sivarda, grinning. “Enjoy what time you have left. Soon you shall be mine.” Turning, he walked away.
“What have you done?” Sivarda demanded, turning on Gahrin.
“Don’t worry my love,” Gahrin said, calmly. “The stone is dear to me as well.” He watched the wizard’s retreating back and allowed a smile to spread across his face. “And Eskarenon is not the only one who can do magic.”
In his private lab at the top of his tower, Eskarenon prepared the stone for his spell. Grinning malevolently to himself he placed it on a tiny iron plate, held in place by a bronze tripod resting on his table. With quill and ink, he drew several runes of power along the outskirts of the plate. Then he waved his hand over the whole contraption to invoke his power.
Slowly, floating in the air above the stone an image began to form. He saw not only Sivarda, but Gahrin as well; they were together on the banks of the river Skri. They were talking. And laughing. A dark knot formed in Eskarenon’s stomach and a bitter expression crawled across his face. Then, even as he continued to work, the stone released its own magic—magic drawn from the connection it had with Gahrin. The image above the stone came alive with emotion. Feelings swept over Eskarenon, feelings he had never known. Gahrin and Sivarda weren’t just happy, they were in love. “No!” Eskarenon said, “That can’t be!” Eskarenon could sense their love, almost feel it. To him it seemed a sweet elixir of which he could taste but a single drop: a drop serving more to torment him with its memory than to satisfy his aching hunger.
“She is to be mine and mine alone,” he said, staggering back from the scene. New feelings swept through him. The ache of Gahrin’s loneliness while living alone. Sivarda’s great despondency from being transformed into a nymph. The two feelings blended in his heart filling him with sorrow. Suddenly, he knew that no matter what he did, it would never be enough. Sivarda would never look at him as she looked at Gahrin. She would never laugh and grow happy at the sound of his voice. He, Eskarenon, was and always would be terribly alone. He felt a tumult of conflicting feelings twisting inside, each feeling bleaker than the one before. Individually, any one of them would have strained his will; together, they overwhelmed it.
With a last desperate cry of anguish, he hurled himself from atop his tower.
- - -
Matthew D. Ryan lives in Cliff Haven, a quiet suburb of the small city of Plattsburgh, NY. Matthew has studied philosophy, mathematics, and computer science in the academic world and has earned a black belt in martial arts.
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