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black water
--a fairy tale for the prompt "monsters" by [personal profile] wildrose

Once upon a time, the Land was only the Land. It was neither City nor Town, neither Forest nor Field. The Land had no name to shape it to give it limits, but for the River that ran through its center. Where the River flowed, the Land could not rise, and where the Land rose high, the River could not flow. When the first People came to the Land, they climbed hills covered with rich green grasses and walked beneath trees bearing leaves so wide they could have covered a man; they heard the sounds of the animals from dawn till dusk and felt the soft velvet of the damp air on their fingertips; they ate of fruits so dark and sweet they stained the People’s lips and plucked flowers so vibrant in color that they stung the eyes; they walked the hills above the River and called it beautiful, and so it was there that the People decided to live.

They built small houses in the hills and hunted the Land between the trees, but they never went close to the River, for its waters were dark and deep, and when the people ventured near they heard the water whisper, calling for them to come closer.

“Monsters live there,” they whispered to each other. “If you get too close… If you go down to the water’s edge, they will devour you!”

So the people stayed away from the River. They found little streams and pools to drink from and did not mind that they could not go near the River. They told stories in their homes and over their fires about the monsters that lived below them, and they always kept to the high ground.

One day, two sisters were coming home from a hunt. They were as alike as two sisters could be, in that they were both young and loved each other very much. The older sister had hair and skin as black as a moonless night, and the younger had hair and skin the color of the sun at its height. They were both beautiful to look upon, and all the People loved them.

On this day, they had tired themselves hunting a herd of deer that ran as fast as the wind, and though it was the elder sister who carried their kill over her shoulders, it was the younger who slipped and fell, tumbling down the hill and out of sight. The elder sister threw her kill down and ran after her; the River lay below, coiled and waiting, and she knew that the monsters would covet her sister’s bright beauty and devour her whole.

She found her lying at the River’s edge, skirt and boots soaked with black water, mud caked into her hair. The River was quiet and still. With a gasp of relief, she clutched her close to her chest.

“Oh, sister,” the one who had fallen said. “It was the Monster. It pulled me from the water. I was drowning, and it saved me.”

The young woman pulled the mud from her sister’s hair until it shone again and checked her limbs for injuries. She looked out over the River, but saw nothing to show where the Monster had been. She pulled her sister to her feet and a chill ran over her skin. They climbed up and away, to the top of the hill.

There they stopped.

“Oh, sister,” the younger one sighed. “The Monster is lonely. It told me so when it laid me on the riverbank. It looks up from the River toward the hills, and it sees us. It loves us, and it doesn’t like being alone in the dark water. It wants all the People to visit, to drink from the River and play by its side. It promises to keep us safe.”

The young woman looked down at her little sister for a time, and she saw the plea in her eyes. She reached out to take her sister’s hand and they gathered their hunt and returned home.

When they reached their little house, the sisters finished their hunt by skinning the animal they’d killed and giving its heart to the Land. The younger sister rinsed the mud from her skin with water gathered from the stream and unstrung her bow. The elder sister changed her bloody clothes and cleaned the edge of her long, curved blade, oiling it before laying in its place by the fire.

When their hair had been laid in identical plaits, one dark and one light, and the sun cast long shadows across the land, they went to speak to the People.

They visited many houses that night, sitting by welcoming fires and sharing fresh loaves of bread. They told the people about the kindness of the Monster, how the younger sister had been saved. They told the People that the Monster was lonely. It wants visitors, they said, and it promises to keep us safe. It loves us.

The People listened, but when the sisters made to leave, they pulled the elder girl aside and whispered in her ear. “Is what she said true?” they asked. “Did you see the Monster that saved your sister? The one that lives in the River?”

“No,” the elder sister answered, for she had never failed to be honest. “I saw only the black water of the River.”

The People shook their heads. “This Monster is dangerous,” they told each other. “It will not keep us safe. It only wants to eat us. If we go to the River, it will swallow us whole.”

The sisters walked from house to house and hill to hill, carrying the tale of the kind Monster that lived in the River. When night fell they continued to walk, until they had spoken to nearly all of the People. They told their story well, even the elder girl, who did not quite believe. And when the sisters had gone, the People built their fires high and sharpened their weapons and told stories about the Monster.

The next day, they came upon a small house they had never seen before. Though she was footsore and weary, the younger sister marched to the door and knocked upon it. The woman who lived inside was older than anyone they had ever met before, her hair white and curling, and her skin soft with wrinkles. She invited them in and they sat by her fire.

The old woman listened to the sisters just as all the People had, but when they were finished, she did not pull the older one aside. She sat quietly for a moment, and then said:

“Tell me about the Monster, little one.”

Eyes slight, the younger sister spoke rapidly. “It is kind and strong. It lifted me from the River and saved me!”

“Not that,” the old woman said. “You’ve told me that already. What does the Monster look like?”

The younger sister sat for a moment, but could not say. She shook her head, cheeks reddening with a bright flush. Her sister reached out to take her hand.

The old woman nodded. She gave them mulled wine to sip and then sent them away, promising to remember their story. The elder sister could not shake the chill that clung to her as she closed the door behind them.

So the sisters returned to their little house, having visited all the People who lived in the hills. They slept deeply and dreamt little.

When they went to the River to fetch water, the sisters found themselves quiet and alone. When the young sister splashed in the water at the River’s edge, laughing, the elder one stayed back to avoid the mud and muck. She could not bring herself to step near the dark water without something inside her shifting uneasily.

As the days passed, the River remained quiet and the People stayed in their hills.

One night, long after she had fallen down the hill, the younger sister woke from terrible dreams. Tears upon her cheeks and hands shaking, she went to her sister and woke her.

“Oh, sister,” she sobbed. “I dreamt of the Monster. It came to me dripping black water. It was weeping, and the sound of it broke my heart. We must convince the people to visit. They must.”

The elder sister reached up and clasped the younger close until her sobs quieted and she was calm.

“The people fear the Monster,” she told her sister. “They have spent so many years afraid of it, scared to even go close to the River. They will not go. Rest now. We will visit in the morning, as soon as the light falls over the Land. We will bring the Monster the best of the fruits and flowers that grow in the high hills. We will make your it happy.”

Though chilled to the bone, they both fell asleep before dawn.

The next day they went to visit the Monster, but the elder sister saw nothing but black water as her sister played. That night the younger woke again from terrible dreams. She went to her sister and crawled under the blankets with her.

“Oh, sister,” she whispered. “I dreamt of the Monster. It came to me while I was sleeping. Its tears were black and terrible and they chilled my soul. Please, we must visit. It is so lonely. I must—”

The elder sister clutched the younger close, stilling her movements. “We will,” she whispered. “We will visit, and we will make it happy.”

Though the younger sister fell asleep shortly after, the elder could not.

The next day they visited the Monster again, and as the younger sister sat quietly speaking, the elder stared into the still black water of the River and wondered. That night, she did not sleep. She tossed and turned in her little bed, unable to shake the chill that gripped her. When the moon had risen high and the night turned deep, she knew the dreams had come again as she heard her sister weeping in her bed.

This night the younger sister did not come to her elder. The young woman listened for a long time, waiting, until the tears dwindled into silence. Finally, the chill left her bones and she fell into a vast and dark sleep.

The next morning, the young woman woke to find the house quiet. Even the wind that swept over the Land held its breath as she stretched, feeling rested and refreshed. She dressed and went to wake her sister, but to her surprise, her sister’s bed was empty. A chill returned to the young woman’s skin, and she looked for her sister, but could not find her. She went out between the trees and walked across the Land, calling her name as loud as she could, but her sister was not there.

She visited the People in their houses. “Please help me,” she said. “Have you seen my sister? When I woke she was gone, and I cannot find her.”

They pursed their lips and shook their heads, and she kept searching. She walked across the hills and visited as many houses as she could, until the sun sat high in the sky and her dark skin was black and shining with exhaustion.

Weary and footsore, she finally came to the house of the old woman. She knocked on the door and asked, “Please, have you seen my sister? I cannot find her anywhere.”

The old woman thought for a moment and then said, “No. I have not seen your sister. But I may know where she has gone.”

Though the young woman pleaded and wept, the old woman would not tell her what she knew until she had gathered her coat and blade and shut the door behind her.

“Go back to your house,” she told the young woman, “and get your hunting blade. Make sure it is sharp. I will go to the others and gather them. I fear that this Monster has taken your sister.”

Struck as if by a heavy weight, she ran back to her house. Her sister had not returned. She sank down upon her sister’s bed and found that the blankets were damp, slightly sodden as if they’d been pulled from the water not long before. The young woman felt that surely her heart had frozen.

She took her blade from beside the cold fire and sharpened it. Then she went to the People who lived nearest and begged to be admitted.

“The Monster has taken my sister,” she told them. “It has taken her to the River because it is lonely, and I am afraid I will never get her back.”

The people smiled, for they had been ready all along, and took out their sharpened blades and lit their torches, and they followed the young woman down to the River. There they met the old woman, who had gathered a group of her own. The sun hung low in the sky and cast long shadows over the Land. The River caught the light from their red torches and cast it back at them, setting the World aglow.

The young woman crept close to the black water, far closer than she’d ever gone before. She kept her long blade held before her.

“Monster!” she called. “Return my sister to me!”

There was no response beside the quiet lapping of the River.

“Monster!” she edged closer. “You came to my sister, now come to me and return her!”

Her blade flashed in the light of the torches. The River was silent.

“There!” the old woman cried, pointing. “I see it! The Monster is there!”

A deep shadow sat beside the River, low and terrible.

The young woman gasped. “Return my sister!” she cried again, and dove forward, swinging her blade. It ripped through the shadow clean and true, not catching for an instant on anything at all. The People surged beside her, thrusting torches and blades forward, and the light from their rush burned away the shadow and left only clarity.

The young woman saw, to her horror, that her sister stood before her. Perhaps the mud that clung to her dress had concealed her presence, or the Monster had cast a spell upon her to hide her, as she appeared without warning from the shadow. Her hair shone with the brilliance of the moon, though it had not yet risen, and her lips stretched in a small smile. Her skin had been rent by several deep gashes, and as the young woman watched in horror, they began to weep dark blood.

The young woman dropped her blade. The River swallowed it as she moved forward and caught her younger sister as she fell. Her blood was hot against the young woman’s skin, and her eyes did not focus.

“Oh, sister,” the younger woman said, her voice a bare, stripped whisper. The people stood all around them, their torches throwing light across the pair. “I dreamt of the Monster. It came to me in the night, weeping black tears. I visited it, and it told me that soon it would not be lonely any more. I’m very glad.” Her voice cracked on the last words, and she breathed her last.

The young woman held her sister close as mud seeped through her dress. A chill crept over her skin and she flinched as the old woman fell to her knees beside them. She reached out with a trembling hand and closed the pale, staring eyes of the girl.

Drawing in a wrenching breath, the elder sister (now, the only sister) said, “The Monster. It killed my sister. I must—”

The old woman shook her head. “No. Leave the Monster be. It has what it wanted, and it will not be lonely anymore. Do not give it your life as well.” The old woman looked into the young woman’s eyes, and saw that within their darkness burned a fierce light. “We are safe from the Monster now.” She curled her fingers around the young woman’s hand and drew her up.

The younger sister’s body fell to the ground and the People came forward, gathering around the young woman and helping her climb the hill as they left.

When they were nearly at the top, she wrenched away and turned back, staring down toward the River in the gloaming light.

Her sister’s pale body had vanished, swallowed by the black water that rushed and tumbled, murmuring below and sending its whispers drifting through the hills until they came to her and slipped into her ears, soothing and terrible.

She felt the chill that had clung to her for days reach deep inside. It laid itself to rest in her heart, and she could not shake it.
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