“He awakens. Leave us. Wait for me by the white standing stone.”
Boots scraped and thudded on rock. Gradually the cave was silent.
Junias Abiel Jeptha stood at attention. In his position, attention was natural, as he’d been a soldier since puberty. It had been many years since he’d been in the Small Foot. A talented soldier, he’d attained rank after rank, and now as General he commanded his own men and stronghold, Sanoat, within King Izzaak’s lands. Currently he sought a place among the upper echelon; a seat on the King’s Own Council.
That is why he stood in this cave today.
“N’than, awaken!” Jeptha’s words echoed through the cave.
The command was meant for the slumped man shackled to the cave wall by his left wrist. Perhaps in his late twenties, N’than Heviek, was the last of his kind; the Hydorcivis. They had been a slight and handsome people who inhabited the shore of the Great Mother Lake.
N’than heard his lover’s words and slowly opened his eyes. He pulled on the chain as he realized his confinement. “Free me, Junias! Why do you lock me here?”
Junias started at the glittering golden eyes of the man he’d … used. “We must part.”
“So rather than send me away, you drown me.”
“You’re not.” N’than stared. “You took me and used me. Now I am a liability. So useless or dangerous am I, you kill me.”
“I must take a wife. You are in my way.”
“I would have just gone away. Left. I know I meant nothing to you. I was just a stopgap for your lust.”
The soldier straightened even more. “That’s right. I cannot take the chance and let you live. Not and get what I want.”
The tide lapped at the commander’s boots. He stared at it. “The tide comes. You will drown in it and tomorrow I will fetch your body. We will bury my dear friend, and my path will then be free.”
N’than tugged on the chain as mightily as he was able. Glancing down at the first water which had just reached his feet. “Why? If you want me gone, I will sail over the Great Mother never to return. Junias, please? I’ve been all you asked; done all. Please free me!”
The soldier retreated and walked through the ankle-deep water. “Farewell. Don’t fight it, but let your end be easy.”
“Let me go! Please! Junias! Please do not ...” N’than watched as the man left him. Tears filled his eyes. “Please ….”
The incoming water was cold. Soon it reached his knees.
N’than turned his attention to the shackle and the bolts. He pulled, dug, clawed and left his fingers cut and bleeding.
The water was waist deep.
In desperation, N’than took the chain in both hands and planted his feet against the wall. He pulled. Rattled. Shook.
Chest deep now, was the water.
“I’ll just pull my hand out … skin be damned. What matter if I am alive?”
He pulled, twisted. Blood seeped but he could not escape the shackle.
“It’s too late … I am to die.”
The water covered him.
He thrashed and pulled. Too soon the air had run out. He remembered Junias’ words. “Don’t fight it, let your end be easy.”
N’than calmed and released the last vestiges of air. His golden eyes dimmed and he felt at peace. Tiny bubbles dribbled from his mouth.
Qavrind swam upward through the cavern. The sensory organs in his webbed hands and around his mouth and cheekbones were on fire. He could feel the death throes. He swam with urgency, his heavily muscled legs pushed him upward. He stopped briefly and picked a round, lacy plant which he tucked into his belt of twisted kelp.
Once in the lake Qavrind allowed the vibrations of the other, to guide him to the cave.
“Oh … why …? He is a Hydorcivis … I thought they were no more.” Qavrind pulled the plant from his belt and placed it over N’than’s nose and mouth. “Can you hear me. Breathe now, be not afraid. The air sponge will help.”
Qavrind worked to free the young male. “Nearly free, but he does not breathe. I must get him out.” Finally, a link was open enough to remove the left hand and the boy was free.
“Into the air to see if I can rekindle this flame.”
After pulling the body out of the cave, Qavrind removed the white sponge and dropped it into the water. He then carried N’than to the shore and up the wet sand. He lay the male down and knelt beside him. He worked to push water from the lungs and allow air in.
“Breathe … come on.” Qavrind pushed on the slim body. “Come on.”
Finally, the still form sputtered. “Quickly, onto your side; breathe.” Once over, water flowed from the lungs of the young Hydorcivis.
With his cheek on the fine white sand, N’than sucked in air. He heaved and coughed for several minutes. The hand that rested on his hip was calming. Slowly, he turned over. His eyes widened and he rolled away in fear. “Stay away!”
Qavrind blinked but did not move. He smiled. “I have come far, saved you and you treat me thus. Am I so ugly, you fear me?”
N’than brushed the sand from his cheek and chest. His face burnt with shame. “I am sorry. What are you?”
“A cousin, of sorts. You are a Hydorcivis, we thought you were all dead.” Qavirind’s green and golden flecked eyes were kind. “You were once as we, but you left the water behind.”
“Yes, our people did, but we didn’t go far. We always lived near the Mother.” N’than stared at his rescuer. He does somewhat look like me, though his skin is … they appear to be scales but softer. He shines in the sun. “I am N’than.”
“Thank you.” N’than closed his eyes. “You saved me, and I owe you.”
“Why were you chained there?”
“I was in someone’s way.”
“Someone? Are you safe now?” Qavrind peered up at the sun.
“He will hunt me when he does not find my body.”
“Then you must come with me. This … earther … will never find our home.” Qavrind rose to his feet. “You will be safe and you can stay as long as you wish to.”
N’than tried to stand but found he was too weak. Qavrind was beside him. “Come.” He slipped an arm around the young man.
“No, I cannot breathe in the water as you can. I only know the earth.”
“We do not live fulltime in the water. And there are things which will allow you to breath as we travel.”
“Truly? You would take me in?”
“Yes. But I cannot tarry here much longer. The air is too dry and the sun’s light will leave us soon. So, decide.”
All was silent for the moment, but for some bird song and the lapping of the lake.
N’than nodded. “Yes, thank you. I will come.”
Qavrind nodded. “Take off your vestments for you cannot swim in them.”
The slim young man pulled off his shirt and then hesitated.
“Those also. Remove them.” Qavrind grinned. “I am male, what you have is nothing new to me.”
N’than’s glance slipped down the toned and un-clothed body and then back up to the smiling eyes.
“I promise I have one, but it is stored within us. Having dangling bits is a temptation to many fish. Some with big teeth!”
As his new companion’s eyes widened, Qavrind laughed. “Wait, I will simply cut most of them away. So your legs are free.” He took a shell knife from his leg sheath, knelt and cut away N’than’s trousers at the tops of his thighs. “There. Come. It is a bit of a swim to home.”
N’than rolled his thin shirt and tucked it in the waist of his now-short pants.
Qavrind took N’than’s hand. “Come. Don’t fear. I will watch after you.”
“I … I am afraid.”
“Don’t be.” Qavrind pulled N’than close and held him. He whispered and kissed the young man’s ear. “I will let nothing happen to you. You are far too beautiful for these earthers. The one who hurt you … if he tried again, I would feed him to the sharks, slowly.”
N’than peered up into Qavrind’s eyes.
The taller man could feel the changes in the younger’s body as he held him. I cannot allow this. “Sweet one, for you are sweet … we must go. Come. We shall swim.”
N’than gripped Qavrind’s hand tightly as they stepped onto the damp sand and into the water. When they were waist deep, Qavrind ducked under the surface for a moment. When he again stood, he handed N’than the air sponge.
“Let me help you fit it. It will hold on, but not hurt you. Simply breathe through it as you would in the air.” He held the white lacy creature against N’than’s face. With tiny suction cups it held on and tickled more that hurt. “There now. Bend to try … see for yourself. Put your face in the water and take a small breath to start.”
N’than did as he was told. With the first small breath, there was no water. There was no change when he took a deeper one. Standing upright he grinned. “That’s amazing.”
“Yes, come now before we are forced to remain here in the dark.”
When they reached the downward shaft, Qavrind knew N’than was tired. He will not be able to swim the full way. There is a small cave where we can stop to rest. He slipped into the hole and motioned to N’than to follow.
To his credit N’than did, though he was exhausted and hungry. Qavrind held up his thumb and forefinger trying to indicate it was a short way. N’than nodded.
They swam on. The caves were part of the shoreline but only accessible through the opening in the lake bottom. Qavrind squeezed through a narrow passage and after another short swim they surfaced in a small cave.
“I’ll get out and then help you,” Qavrind said. He pulled himself out onto the floor of the cave. Then kneeling, he pulled the exhausted Hydorcivis out.
“You rest. I will find us some oysters; we can eat them raw along with some seaweed.” Qavrind reached out and gently removed the air sponge from N’than’s face. “Good creature. I will place it on the wall so it will live while we rest. Then we can use it again for the remainder of the way. Now, I’ll be off and won’t be long.”
N’than nodded as his companion slipped back into the water.
Junias walked along the white sand. Before him the sun was a hint on the horizon. He stopped when he reached the cut-off trousers. Bending, he picked them up and frowned. Dropping the cloth, he walked on and into the cave. He stared at Qavrind who sat upon a boulder.
“You’re here. Do you have him?” The soldier sat down on a similar-sized rock.
“Yes, he’s with me and safe.” Qavrind stared at the Earther. “There was no reason for you to do what you did. He could easily have died if I hadn’t arrived up on time.”
“It seems you did arrive on time, so do not give me your bluster.” Junias stood. “Stop pretending you are some saint. He needs to be gone from me, so if you were late, he’d be drowned. What will you do with him?”
Qavrind got to his feet. “I took your problem off your hands. What I do with the little land-boy is not your affair. Stay out of my way earther, or I will feed you to the sharks.” Walking to the edge of the cave and into the lake, Qavrind glared at the General once more. “Keep out of the water, Junias. It can be a dangerous place.”
Junias glared at the Daryaneeg but said nothing.
Smiling to himself, Qavrind slipped into the water and swam away with strong strokes.
In the cave N’than shivered as he dried. His wet shirt was of no help in warming him.
The cavern was dark, lit only by glowing algae. He leaned against the rocks, pulled his legs in close, and wrapped his arms around them. The young male let his head fall onto his knees.
Qavrind returned with several oysters and several thick strands of seaweed. Smiling at the sleeping Hydorcivis he placed the bounty he’d brought on the rock shelf and pulled himself out. He shook N’than gently.
“Awaken. I’ve brought food. You must eat.”
N’than opened his eyes and offered a small smile. “Thank you … I do not remember your name.”
“My full name is Qavrind, but you, sweet one, may call me Qa.”
He felt his skin flush and hoped his friend could not see. “Thank you, Qa.”
Qavrind opened a stubborn oyster, cut it free of its home and handed it to N’than. “Eat.” Once the young man had taken the shell, Qa sliced the seaweed into thin strips. “Eat this also.”
The oyster was welcomed and slurped down with joy. The seaweed strips were chewy, strong flavoured, and salty. “Oh, this I do not like so well.”
“Perhaps not,” said Qavrind. He grinned. “Yet, eat it anyway. It brings much goodness our bodies need.” He used his shell knife to pry open more oysters, which they shared.
Qavrind pushed the empty shells into the water. Then he moved next to the Hydorcivis, and they snuggled together for warmth and slept.
“Wake now, little one. We must be away to home.” Qavrind kissed his companion’s cheek to rouse him.
N’than opened his eyes and gazed at the creature before him. “I’m ready.” His shirt he again rolled and tucked away.
“Good, let us be off.”
Qa slipped into the water and retrieved the air sponge. “Here, sweet boy. Just hold it close and it will cling on.”
N’than did as he was told, and the lacy sponge held fast. As he marveled he could breathe underwater, he watched Qavrind swim past. I am nowhere near as strong but I will try to keep up.
Qa took them through many bends and turns, and through many underwater caverns. After an hour of swimming, he pulled himself out of the water in a small cave. N’than climbed out after him and removed the air sponge. He held it gently in the water until it clung to the rock next to his legs.
“Why are we stopping?”
Qa smiled. “We’ll rest a bit. And I should tell you about my people.”
“All right.” Suddenly N’than felt fear in his belly.
Qavrind began to speak. “You will find them to be unaccepting of you. They do not trust easily or quickly. This is for good reason, but be quiet and honest. Let them see you are who you say, and they will come to trust you.”
“Why do you trust me?” N’than cocked his head. “Or do you?”
“I do not believe you would allow yourself to drown, in order to meet me, or get to us.” Qa pursed his generous lips and smiled again. “Also … also, I know the man who did this to you … General Jeptha.”
“You?” N’than gaped. “You know him?”
“I do. But hear my words, sweet one, for I do not like or trust him.”
“How did you know that I was …?”
Qavrind reached out to gently touch N’than’s face. “I could feel you … your movements, your heartbeat. I knew you would not live long.”
N’than sat quietly and then gave voice to his thoughts. “If your people will not like me? What will I do? How will I live?”
“You will stay with me … be part of my household.”
“Will I work for you?”
“Yes, I’m sure there are things we can find for you to do.” Qa gazed down at his webbed fingers. “There is more … there is the issue of my wife.”
Wife? Oh, but why should this surprise me? He is new to me only. N’than drew in a calming breath. You should have learned not to expect anything in this world … fool.
“She especially will not welcome you,” Qa continued speaking. “While she once claimed to understand my needs … mmm, desires … the years have proven she does not. She is jealous, though I have said she is welcome to take lovers.”
N’than said nothing, but a feeling of dread had slipped over him. His heartbeat sounded loudly in his ears. I do not want to go to this place.
He looked at Qa. “I think Junias would have been to the cave and knows I am gone. I do not want to live where I am hated by all.” Tears formed in N’than’s eyes. “I am hurt enough. Please help me return to the land, and I will walk to Deegan’s Port. From there I can get work on the ships.”
“Sweet one, please give life with us a chance …”
“No. If you will not free me, I will just go and try to find my way out. Death would be better than living with all who hate me.” N’than’s words flew from his lips like bats from a cave.
Poor thing. What have I done? Qavrind reached out and put his hand on N’than’s slim shoulder. “All right, please calm yourself. I mean you no harm, N’than. If you wish to go to Deegan’s Port, I will take you there.”
“Thank you. Thank you for everything. I do not mean disrespect, or to appear ungrateful, for I am not.” The Hydorcivis dropped his head. “I have been living as a weak thing, a whore for Junias … and I am tired of being afraid and quiet. I will seek work on the ships and travel the world, Qa. I need to be my own, I need to find me.”
Deegan’s Port was a bustling town about five days travel from Sanoat. Qavrind had journeyed with N’than to see him safely there. They sat in a tavern together.
“I do not feel right leaving you here, sweet one.” Qa sipped from his glass of water. He ate sparingly of the fat figs and ripe cheeses they had ordered. “Will you be all right? If you wish safety, I can give you that. Peace also. Do not live in my household. I can find you a place—”
N’than interrupted. “Qa. Qa, please. I find I must do this. In my life I have never left Sanoat … never crossed the Mother. I need to see what more there is in the world. What more there could be for me.” The young man nibbled a purple fig. “I am glad to know you and grateful you saved me.”
Qa nodded. “I understand. I travelled when I was younger, before duty took my freedom. Then I have but two gifts for you. First a wish, for your safe travels.” Reaching into his belt the Daryaneeg drew out a little bag. “This holds some silver and gold coins … to get you started.” He handed the small leathery pouch to N’than.
The Hydorcivis accepted and fingered the soft sea-hide. He whispered, “Thank you.”
“And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this.” Qa removed the amulet he wore. “It is a symbol of my house. Wear it, and know you are welcomed by me anytime.” He reached over the table and placed it over N’than’s head. He gazed at the younger man. “You are loved, and welcome.”
Tears sat in N’than’s golden eyes. “Thank you.”
Qa blinked back his own tears. He cleared his throat. “Well … you’re welcome. Now, I should go, they will start to wonder with me being gone so long.” The Daryaneeg got to his feet and pointed. “Down that way is the Shipping House. There you can seek work.” Pausing, he looked down at the slim young Hydorcivis. “Are you sure about this, N’than? Really sure?”
“No … no, I am not at all sure. I am afraid of what may happen to me, but I am more afraid of not trying.”
“Then go with my prayers and love for you. I do understand what you feel.” Qavrind took N’than’s hand and helped him to his feet. “May the winds be fair and the Mother rock you gently.”
They walked hand-in-hand to the corner. Qa bent and kissed the Hydorcivis tenderly.
“Should you ever have need, you have my amulet. Simply enter the water, hold it in your hands and speak my name aloud. I shall know. Unless I am no more, I will come to you.”
N’than stood listening, tears ran from his eyes and he shook in fear. He nodded.
“N’than, truly you do not have to do this.” Qa stared. “I can give you freedom. Work here in Deegan’s Port. I will care for you still.”
“T’would be simple to say yes. Easy to have you to depend on. But no.” The Hydorcivis wiped the tears away. “I must find me. Discover what I am capable of.”
Qa straightened and smiled. “I understand. Then go my sweet one, I will pray Ohrus and the Mother will protect you.” Qavrind blinked, smiled and squeezed N’than’s shoulder as he walked away.
N’than spun around and watched his friend. Tears threatened again, but he drew in a breath and held it. If you want to prove yourself, turn now and walk to the Shipping House.
Thanks to @AC Benus for editing while preparing a novel for publication. Thanks AC for your time and friendship.