Rivers Run Free

Issue #230

Where Viora Falls used to leap four thousand feet into Lake Aerik, her every pounding breath a climax, a triumph, there is now a citadel. It is the great accomplishment of the Lutean Empire—Viora dammed, chained, all her rage and love harnessed now to power their wheels, their cogs and dials and machines.

“They know we’re here,” Sainet says, voice soft as if unused to speaking. I’m not sure he had ever taken solid form before I found him in a cave system and brought him out into the light. Some say his past makes him cold, but that’s not the sense I get from him.

“We have time,” I say, more hope than fact. The Dowsers are doubtless on their way, but they haven’t learned to fly. And we need to see this. Or I want to see this. To remember this. Whatever happens next.

“Is it true what they say?” Verdan asks. She’s the youngest, used to be a branch of the Burgora before the Dowsers diverted the river, cut daughter from mother. “Can they really kill us?”

“As much as they can stop the rain,” Mor says, eir voice like iron. Mor, the most faithful to the old songs. The cycles. Change without death, waters without end.

“They can do bad enough,” I say, looking down at Aerik, who is nearly dry, alive only by the gentle touch of Viora’s waters, not strong enough even to take solid form. He’s just a trickle, our reminder and our warning—see what happens when you go against the Luteans. See what happens when river pits itself against human. Everywhere east, where Aerik used to birth a dozen strong rivers that radiated out, bringing life to the valley, there is only the Dust now. See what happens when you resist, when you defy. We’ve seen what we needed to see. We all turn toward that bleak horizon across the Dust, where far beyond the sea might reside, must reside. We move.

A truth about rivers: we have always been able to draw our water together into solid bodies, to walk on two legs. But it is not without risk, and not without cost. We lose much of ourselves in the transformation, and if there’s not enough of us to start with, well...

We ride stolen horses over the choked earth.

“It’s not working,” Sainet says.

They’ve had our trail since the citadel, and there’s been nothing since to help us lose them. Sometimes the Dowsers get confused when waters cross, and using the dry riverbed as a road had seemed nearly safe. But nothing is—safe, that is. Not since the Luteans discovered what a resource we are.

“We have to turn and face them,” Mor says.

I’m tired of fighting. Tired of losing battle after battle. Friend after friend. I’m tired of running because if I don’t a Dowser will track me down, put me in irons, force me to push a wheel that will only make them stronger and me weaker, weaker, gone. I want to win for once.

I close my eyes. The Dust is full of ghosts these days, and some of them speak. The riverbed we urge our horses faster over was once the Malbrush. I can feel his confusion when the waters stopped flowing. When the sun slowly ate him away, drew him into the sky until nothing remained. Except his memory. I ask to see through his eyes, and his ghost grants me, reveals the miles he used to run. And I see a way.

“We keep going,” I shout over the sound of the horses’ hooves pounding the dry earth.

“We have to—” Mor starts to say, but I cut em off.

“We’ll make our stand up ahead. There’s an old waterfall.”

Mor smiles as if reading my mind. If there is a hell like the humans claim then we’re all going to it anyway. But they have to kill us, first.

A truth about rivers: there used to be laws that kept the peace between human and river. Or, if not laws, an understanding. We liked company, and they liked the food and relief we offered. It worked for everyone until it didn’t, until it only worked for them, and they never looked back.

I stand with the horses by the edge of the dry waterfall. Not as tall as Viora, but tall enough for what I intend. I face away from the dead drop just feet behind me. A cliff, I guess people call it now. Like this was all natural. I stand with the horses because the Dowsers will know something’s wrong if they don’t see them. They’re merciless bastards but they know how to track, so it’s me and four horses all standing there, waiting, when they arrive.

“What took you so long?” I ask as two of the four dismount. They all draw weapons, but shooting from the back of a horse is bad business, all noise and smoke and panic. So two remain seated, probably in case I decide to run for it, and two walk slowly forward, silent. Why are they always silent? Why does that make it worse?

I tried to convince Mor to take the others and run, just run regardless of how this goes. Chances are that I can handle myself—I have before. I could catch up. But ey just looked at me and I could feel the hollowness of my words. Of course they can’t run. Isn’t this entire trip, our whole mission, about not having to fight alone anymore. About being stronger together. We’re done leaving people behind. So I stand there smiling like an idiot, and the Dowsers draw forward while Mor feels their footsteps though the sand.

They keep their weapons trained on me, all iron and salt and fire, the tools they use to bind us, to track us. That and some innate talent that Dowsers have for finding water. Sometimes I wonder that if we had a way to find them as easily as they can find us, how we’d use the knowledge. If we’d find them as they slept secure in their beds, if people would find them dead the next morning, drowned without an inch of standing water to be found. I don’t think it would be more than they deserve.

One of the two approaching me pulls out a pair of iron manacles. I smile. Mor acts. Ey rises. From behind their horses a wall of water jumps to life, splashing from the sands, a sudden torrent that rolls like an avalanche. The riders have no time at all to react. In a second they are swept by the wave, pushed forward. I stand still, which is what dooms the other two, who if they reacted immediately could have run to the side, escaped the wave. But they pivot, eyes on the wave and then on me, and it’s as if they can smell there’s some trick to this, that if they watch me I’ll give away how I plan to survive and they can do likewise.

I sink into the sand. Do they think to try that before the wave catches them as well? If they do, it doesn’t work. They are swept along. As are our horses. And they all go over the cliff. I don’t watch, don’t want to see the terror in the horses eyes, don’t want to face that we’re all merciless bastards.

I rise, see Mor kneeling in the sand right at the edge watching them fall, eir body heaving from the effort that must have taken, from the water ey has lost. But it worked. And from the falls we can look out at the Dust and see it spread to the horizon like a gray blanket. Huge. Desolate. Nearly featureless except, far in the distance, a collection of buildings betrays what must have been a town, once. What it is now, we’ll just have to see.

A truth about rivers: all waters are alive to some degree, though not all can stand and talk. It takes volume and movement and force to birth a river, to bring water to full awareness, but the potential is always there. In our oldest stories, it was water that gave soul to humans, falling on their clay bodies and infusing them with some touch of the divine. In our new stories, that was a mistake.

The town is like most things in the Dust—a ghost of what it used to be. Malbrush used to flow down through two dozen farms and near the thriving town center, but now only a handful of the buildings remain, the rest claimed by what looks like fire. A common occurrence where wood used to be the primary building material.

“This is—” Mor’s words are eaten by a fit of coughing that wracks eir body, but I know what ey mean.

“A mistake,” I finish for em. Perhaps it is. But losing our horses means we’ll be easier to Dowse, and most places in the Dust hate the Luteans as much as we do. It wasn’t just the rivers to have suffered when the citadel was erected. Viora wasn’t the only one damned by that treachery.

“I just need—” ey starts to say but can’t finish. Time? Rest? Rain? All rather impossible at the moment. But the town is here and might have rain stores they’d be willing to share. So we limp into town and aren’t surprised to find a woman wearing a star on her chest and resting a Lutean rifle against her shoulder.

“We’re not looking for trouble,” she says, which is its own sort of hello out here.

I nod. “We’re not bringing it,” I lie.

Her eyes narrow as she studies us. Like most people in the Dust, her skin is a pale tan, not the slightly blue tinge of our own. She knows what we are, and must know that the rifle she carries offers her some protection. And she’s careful. I can feel at least five other people hidden in the mostly-deserted town.

“Traveling on foot?” she asks. I have questions of my own, like where she got the rifle. The Luteans don’t just hand those out, so it means she’s either working for them or took it off the dead. I’m betting it’s the second of those, but can’t be sure.

“We lost our horses at the falls,” I say.

“That’s a shame,” she says.

“Well, we lost a team of Dowsers, too, so it sort of evened out,” I say.

She nods, then lowers the rifle so it’s pointing at the ground and walks forward.

“Then you have my thanks.” She extends her hand and I take it, feel her firm grip. Her eyes don’t leave mine and I can tell she’s weighing me. Testing me. I hold her gaze until she smiles and gives a sharp whistle. The five people hiding all step into the street, weapons lowered. We pass the test, I guess.

“I’m Sheriff Arleth Yates,” she says. “Welcome to Abbotsville.”

A truth about rivers: I do not know the first river the Luteans managed to chain. The notion was so foreign a concept we didn’t even know to fear it. Like an infant whose first experience with water is to be completely submerged, it took us too long to realize the rules of our world had changed, and that we were in great danger.

I sit at the table the sheriff has set for us. The food is more than I would have expected from a place like this.

“Where are you headed?” Deputy Owens asks. He’s a large man with light eyes that seem always squinting. I catch the sheriff shooting him a warning look, but I shrug. There’s no real harm in telling them. After the falls, after everything, maybe it will help them all to hear it out loud.

“To the sea,” I say. The word is like a cold draft through the room, and all of us straighten in our seats.

“Sounds like a long way to go,” the sheriff says, studying my face like she’s reading a map. “I’ve only heard stories, and none that I could really credit. Doesn’t hardly seem possible, all that water in one place.”

“It’s real,” I say. I can feel Sainet’s eyes on me. Verdan’s. Mor’s.

“I suppose it makes sense, looking to run away,” the sheriff says. “What with those Lutean bastards. Some things, there’s no real fighting.”

“We’re not running away,” I say. We’re not. What would that do? The Luteans won’t be content with just the rivers in what’s now the Dust. Their citadel will grow taller, their wheels larger, until the whole world is empty of free waters.

“Didn’t mean anything by it,” Sheriff Yates says, raising her hands.

“We’re going to bring it back,” I say.

The sheriff’s eyes widen. Sainet sucks in a ragged breath.

“Beyond the Dust,” I say, “and beyond the mountains and beyond the forests and farther still, there’s the sea. So vast and so powerful that the waters of it know no fear. And we’ll tell the sea of what’s happening here, and it will feel the pain of its children and it will rise and flow across the land. Over the forests and the mountains and the Dust and it will tear down the dams and the dikes and the locks and the citadel. And the Dust will be green again, and the Luteans will drown and...”

I realize that I’m breathing heavy, that I’m leaning over the table toward the sheriff, that there’s a storm inside me. It’s my prayer, my hope. I look up, see Sainet staring at me. He’s breathing hard too, pupils large.

“Excuse me, I think I need to lie down,” I say. I stand, flee the table and the pounding in my veins and the ghosts of the dead and the hope of the sea. I find the room the sheriff has left us and fall inside, everything in me shaking. I sink to my knees, feel part of myself leaking away. I’m crying.

I feel a presence behind me, turn to see Sainet standing there, his face a mask of hunger and despair. He closes the door. I rise to meet him.

What ever made me think I could forget this? Sainet’s mouth on mine, his hands tearing at clothing. What made me think this was something I had forgotten how to do? Was it the running? The death? Was all I needed this short respite without Dowsers on our heels to remember? This refuge in Abbotsville?

I react, curving myself against his body, fitting myself to him. Mouth, neck, chest, stomach, hips—we’re touching at every point, our bodies liquid and solid and pulling. Somewhere else Mor is sitting with Sheriff Yates and Deputy Owens, and ey has to know what is happening. We aren’t human, can’t ignore the signs, the way the earth seems to hold its breath, the way the dry night air is suddenly humid, hot.

There is a creak of the door opening, and I know it’s Verdan without having to look to see. Peeking at the doorway. I don’t stop. She’s old enough to know, and I’m not sure I could stop now anyway. Not with the way Sainet’s hands are sliding over my ass, working at the pull of my belt.

I think of our last time. How long ago now? I remember darkness, meeting in a rush. Like this. Always like this, hidden from the sun and the Dowsers and any chance of discovery. How long since I have met with another without fear? But they are all unfair questions with Sainet tugging down my pants, pushing me to the bed, onto my back.

I don’t cry out as he enters me. I don’t whimper or moan. What releases from my lips is a sigh, short and soft, and then I’m pulling him down to kiss me again. It makes the movements awkward, inelegant, but at this moment I need the taste of him, crisp and cool and clear. He is stone and mineral and a hint of salt and perfect, like how the sea must taste. I let him go and we find our rhythm, our flow, his hand around me and him inside me, and my mind is finally free of questions.

And then I feel the rising deep within me, a well that is suddenly overflowing, moving up and up and we do cry out then, voices twined and reaching. Toward each other and toward something else, somewhere else that we’re not even sure of except in the hope that lives and dies in the pleasure spreading through us, our skins disappearing and reappearing in a thunderclap of climax. And slowly we come back to each other. To the bed, the room. To Verdan breathing heavy at the door and Mor sitting flushed talking to the sheriff and deputy.

And, somewhere beyond that, another presence as well, an echo of someone we hadn’t noticed before. And they’re crying for our help.

A truth about rivers: There’s water nearly everywhere. In the air and in the ground and in the morning songs of the birds who no longer fly here. Too small, to diffused to speak on its own, we can still use it to speak to each other, and to see what humans hope is concealed.

It’s early when we slide from the old inn and make our way across town. The sheriff is hopefully still sleeping, but even if she’s not, we can’t put this off. The call is clearer now, and only we can hear it. The town is silent as we follow the voice to its source. Of course it’s the well. Was there any doubt it would be? I look at Sainet, but he won’t meet my gaze, keeps his head on a pivot, watching for signs the town knows what we’re up to.

“What is it?” Verdan asks, but even she knows the answer. None of us speak, and she doesn’t ask again as we examine the well, a shaft of stone piercing the earth. Ever since the Dust has been the Dust, the wells have been dry, but we can all feel the water below.

“Look around for some gear box,” I say. The well has been modified since its original construction, augmented with gears and piping, a faint clicking that belies Lutean technology. It feels like there’s a storm inside me, a tempest. I clench my jaw and Mor grunts as ey pulls up a wooden board covered by the sand. Underneath, the clicking intensifies.

“So they’re working for the Empire, then?” Sainet asks.

I shake my head, examining the materials used. It’s Lutean made, definitely, but it’s cobbled together from bits and pieces. Probably the town had managed to ambush a patrol or a caravan. Or maybe raid one of the small Lutean outposts that separate the Dust from the Empire. Probably the sheriff had been telling the truth about just how much they hated the Luteans. This was...

“We need to break it,” I say. There’s a wrench left next to the gear box, no doubt in case they need to make repairs. I pick it up and bring it down as hard as I can against the metal case. Once, twice, each strike a bell letting the town know what we’re doing. But it needs to be done. After three strikes something clangs inside, and the clicking stops.

“Get them up,” I say, and instantly Sainet and Mor are sliding down the well, bodies liquifying. I’m almost afraid to see who they bring up.

“Why did they do it?” Verdan asks from beside me. The wrench feels hot in my hand. I can’t answer. Only the sheriff will be able to answer for this.

When Mar and Sainet return they’re pulling another with them. Verdan and I step forward, place our hands upon them, and share what water we can spare. The moment our waters mingle we know them. Druun. From the borders of the Dust. I see their journey, their flight from the Dowsers. I see them walk into Abbotsville and see Sheriff Yates welcome them with open arms.

A bell begins to ring. A warning. A promise.

“We’re getting out of here,” I say.

Sheriff Yates is waiting for us in the street.

“You should of just left well enough alone,” she shouts as we keep to the shadows. I can feel more people around us. More than the five from before. Did she call them as soon as she knew what we were? Had she been hoping to profit from our visit in more ways than just sending riders out to loot the Dowsers’ bodies? Druun doesn’t look so good, though they seem much better now that they’re out under the open sky. What they’ve been through—I shudder. It’s no worse than the Luteans and so much worse.

“We’re not looking for trouble,” I shout back, knowing that it’s too late for that. Too late for so much. I adjust my grip on the wrench in my hand.

I motion to Sainet to separate, enter the dilapidated buildings. The dark is his home, and I know no one is a match for him there. What to do about the sheriff is another matter entirely. I look at Mor, who is helping Druun but is hardly recovered emself. Which leaves me and Verdan.

“Well I’m bringing it,” Sheriff Yates says, taking aim at us with her rifle. “You put them back in the well or this is going to end in blood.”

“I thought you were better than this,” I say. “Better than the Luteans.”

“I am better than the Luteans!” she nearly screams at me, the barrel of her rifle wavering. “You think we want it this way? We’re just making the best of a bad situation, and not one that we caused. What were we supposed to do? Die? Wait for you to show up with your magic sea and save us? What good would that have done anyone? With the power that river gives us, at least we can fight. We can fight to keep the Lutean bastards from taking anything more.”

“The citadel’s a long way from here,” I say. “And it’s not a Lutean you’ve been torturing.” My fingernails dig into my palms from where my fists are clenching. I look at Verdan. Her face is set, her body rigid. I can hear something in her, the rage of rapids pounding over rock. She’s old enough for this, too.

“What do you expect?” Yates calls. “Their power, their weapons...how are we supposed to fight them without using what they use? It’s not like you lot were out here volunteering to help.”

“So this is our fault?” I ask. I nod to Verdan, who starts inching forward along the side of the building. We need to separate, to give the sheriff multiple targets, to draw her attention away from Mor and Druun.

“I don’t care whose fault it is,” the sheriff says, “as long as me and mine survive it.”

“Then you’re no better than the Luteans,” I say. “Only different.”

And then I charge her.

I feel the shot but it doesn’t stop me. In the shadows Sainet is killing and in the light I am swinging the wrench in my hand. It’s fitting, the sharp shock of impact, the wet thud. The wrench isn’t mine and it’s not theirs, but it has doomed us both. I keep hitting until my arm is numb and the wrench slips free into the sand. I’m on my knees again, leaking.

No. No, this is not how it ends. I push myself to my feet. This is not the end. Around me there is a new chaos, and I can smell something burning. Abbotsville. The town is burning. Good. I put one foot in front of the other, and then Sainet is there, face spotted with ash.

“We have to go,” he says, and there’s something in his voice, a ragged hurt and desperation. Not cold at all.

Pain causes me to groan, nearly collapse, but I manage a nod. We’ll run, run until we are free.

A truth about rivers: There’s so much gone now. Not just our dead but all that we held. The fish and the plants—the life. What remains is only dry earth and memories, and maybe there will come a day when not even those are left.

I keep my mind on Sainet’s voice and the feeling of putting one foot in front of the other. I’m leaking. Fucking sea I’m leaking, ripe wet droplets of me sinking into the sand. Gut shot. That’s what I am. That’s what— I stumble and cry out and Sainet’s arms catch me, keep me from falling.

Everything’s jumbled. I can’t keep it straight.

“Wasn’t supposed to be like this,” I say. It was supposed to be...

“It’s nothing,” Sainet says. “You’re going to be fine.” He calls for Mor and Verdan, but they have their hands full with Druun.

A merry bunch we all make. Each step I take wets the sands, causes my feet to stick in earth that’s ravenous for moisture. I would kill for a horse, but I’m afraid I’ve killed for far less, far more, far far away where rivers run free. There is blood on my hands and mingled with the water spilling from me with each step. Whatever the bullet is, inside me, I can feel it doing its work.

“Have you ever been to the sea?” I ask. To Sainet, or maybe to Druun. To anyone. What does it matter anyway?

“The sea is a myth,” Sainet says. Of course he doesn’t believe. I want to ask him why he came then, but I’m afraid of the answer. Even now.

I take another step, another. I will not die here. I will not die here. Behind me I feel the heat of the flames. It’s almost inviting. I don’t look back.

“One day the sky will take us up one final time.” It’s Mor. Ey are suddenly standing there, one of Druun’s arms draped over eir shoulder. Ey seems mostly recovered now, but there’s a slight quaver in eir voice. “And the wind will take us out to sea, and we will fall as rain into the endless waters.”

“I’d like to see it,” I say. I falter again. More hands steady me. There’s Verdan, eyes still wide. Why is it they have to learn so young to be hated?

“I’m sure you will,” she says. “Just like you said. We’ll find the sea and we’ll bring it back with us, to tear down the dams and the dikes and the locks. Just like you said.”

I smile. Just like I said.

A truth about rivers: sometimes we lie. And sometimes we tell the truth. And sometimes we hope so hard we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

I’m on the beach, reclined, my head in Sainet’s lap, my eyes closed. He runs a hand through my hair. If I open my eyes I will see it, the endless expanse of the sea. I will hear the countless voices speaking as one and they will tell me it will be all right.

“I’m tired,” I say, and realize just how true it is. How did I ever get this tired?

“Don’t quit on me now,” Sainet says.

I smile. I’m not quitting, I want to say. Just taking a rest. A little rest. Haven’t I earned that? But words won’t rise in my throat.

“Open your eyes,” Sainet says. I hear other voices, too. Of course. Mor is here, and Verdan, and Druun too. All here. “Open your eyes.”

There’s an edge to Sainet’s voice. I want to tell him to relax. We’ve come so far. We’ve come so far. But Sainet’s right. We’re not done yet. I move my hand over the fine sand of the beach. It almost feels like dust.

I open my eyes. The sea is so very far away.

“Take me there,” I say, though it hurts to say anything. Soon I’ll be gone into the Dust, but right now I can hold together long enough to... “Take me to the sea.”

They crowd around me. Mor and Verdan each take one of my hands in theirs and Druun touches my shoulder. I will make it to the sea, even if I never see it.

“Thank you,” I say, and close my eyes. I let go. I let it all go, and I think of Viora and freedom. I am a waterfall bound for the thirsty sand, nearly gone, nearly gone.

Until they catch me.

Through them all, I am. I give, like we gave to Druun after we pulled them from the well, and all that I am they catch, my hopes and my dreams—my waters, until I am just a wave passing through them, soon to crash and fade but for this moment alive in them all, connecting them.

They—now we—all look down at the dry earth, vacant now but for my empty clothes. We stretch, bodies suddenly refreshed, wounds gone as if washed clean. We stand and look back at Abbotsville burning.

“Let’s go,” Mor says, and we turn toward the horizon, and the mountains beyond that, and the forest beyond that, and the sea beyond that, and start walking.


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Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.

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3 Comments on “Rivers Run Free”

3 Responses to “Rivers Run Free”

  1. Richard Leis says:

    Charles Payseur is one of my recent favorite writers, so I was really excited to read “Rivers Run Free”, his story about, well, rivers running free, or so they hope, as they, embodied in human-like form, are chased by the humans who exploited them and brought about ecological collapse. The story is much shorter than I’ve read in BCS before (though I haven’t read that many issues yet), but packed full of vivid detail, drama, river sex, and punches to the gut, leading to an ending full of uncertainty and hope.

  2. Jonathan Edelstein says:

    This is a great story. I particularly loved that the rivers have their own creation myth – that they mythologize humans much as premodern people mythologized the waters. That brush-stroke drives home that this is a story of a conflict between sentient races rather than more conventional river-gods.

    Interesting, though, that salt is one of the tools used to bind the rivers – maybe the sea, and its salt water, will not be all the characters hope?

  3. Julia Hjelte says:

    With a breathtaking writing style that manages to bond seamlessly a fast pace and a poetic narrative, such that the two weave about one another gracefully, pushing and pulling the reader to both read faster out of curiosity, and slower to bask in the phrasing itself, Rivers Run Free is a story that leaves you thirsting for more.

    I especially admire Payseur’s technique of bringing his themes around in the exact right punchy moments: Verdan’s being old enough to know–to know love and to know death and to have to learn to be hated; the ever-present cycle of change through the narrative, of remaining always together, in life, in fights, and in the after; and, from beginning to end, the soft echoes of a dry hope that the protagonist continues to lean on.

    It was a pleasure to read.

    Looking forward to reading much more from him, as well as past and future anthologies from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

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