by Richie Billing
Inea, a child of the river people, wanders too far from home while classing a group of ducklings and finds that there are true evils in the world.
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“Don’t stray too far, Inia!” her mother called from the cook fire. “Dinner will be ready soon and pa will be back from hunting.“
“Okay ma!” Inia shouted back, gaze fixed on the golden duck, flecked with brown, paddling downriver with her cheeping yellow ducklings in tow. The smell of her mother’s broth made her stomach grumble, but seeing ducks put that to the back of her mind. Ever since her father had brought home an injured mallard a few years before, her heart soared whenever she saw one. And never had she seen ducklings. Her cheeks ached from smiling at the sight.
The family of ducks rippled the reflection of the cerulean sky as the mother led her young to a cluster of reeds. She spun around to check on them, grunting softly. Birds called from the emerald forests smothering both banks: cackling magpies, whistling blackbirds, even the tap of a woodpecker.
They swam on around a bend in the river, heading for the shelter of an overhanging willow with finger-like roots reaching out into the water. Wisteria, white as bone, hung from its branches, fallen leaves dancing in the current below. Inia skipped toward it too, catching the scent of the crimson cardinal flowers growing along the bank. They reminded her of Nana. “My little flowers” she used to call Inia and her siblings.
A stout root wound over the heads of the flock. With arms outstretched for balance she began to walk along it. The lichen-covered surface felt slick underfoot. Pollen tickled her nose as she ducked underneath the wisteria and petals became entangled in her hazelnut hair. She nearly fell fighting the urge to sneeze, but made it to the end and sat down, legs dangling over the ducklings. Unafraid, they swam toward her, circling her feet, trying to jump with miniature wings. Inia giggled, and the mother grunted as if laughing too.
After a few minutes of play, mother duck herded her young and led them beyond the willow. Inia spun around, watching them go. Then she saw it.
A boat approached; twice the size of her family’s houseboat, propelled by two oars, one either side. What looked like cages were stacked at its bow. A man jumped on top of them, rattling the metal frames, and looked in her direction with the aid of a telescope. He pointed and four men appeared, then dispersed. Moments later two more oars shot out of the sides and began to cut through the water with growing haste.
Inia squinted. Another clan, maybe? A lost merchant? Mother duck growled and flapped her wings, ushering her young back upriver. Details became clearer. The man upon the cages wore a russet leather jerkin with matching breeches. That ruled out another clan—the River Folk wore only furs. He picked something up off the deck. A crossbow. Fear struck her heart like a bolt from the bow itself.
Inia hurried back along the root. Her leading foot slipped. She clawed at the wisteria as she tumbled, dragged it down with her into the silty water. The cold shocked her body, disturbed sand of the bed gritty in her mouth. Her flailing feet touched the bottom, and she scrambled up the muddy bank, gasping.
Howls rang out behind. Ignoring them and her dripping clothes Inia moved her legs faster than she ever had.
“Oi! Stop your runnin’. We ain’t gonna’ hurt ye’,” a deep, raspy voice called. She refused to look back, longing for the safety of her mother’s arms. The laughter grew louder, harsher. Her legs burned, sodden clothes slowing her down. The hysterics closed in, at her back, then her side. Water splashed her cheeks. Out of the corner of her eye she saw movement, but kept her gaze upriver, searching for her family. Beyond the bend, out of sight. Tears welled in her eyes. She decided to turn into the forest, to get as far away from these men as possible.
As she turned something struck her back, knocked her off her feet, the breath from her lungs. Inia hit the ground, body enveloped and forced into a ball. Her knees struck her chin and the metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. She strained every sinew but couldn’t break free, the net too tight, too strong.
“Ma! Pa!” she yelled, to no avail.
A hook thudded into the bank. She couldn’t help but quiver at the sound of footsteps scuffing against the ground. A finger jabbed her side and she yelped with fright.
“She’ll fetch a nice price,” the voice from before said, answered by sniggers. She felt herself lurch backwards, dragged across rocks and sticks. “Open the cage.” An iron door creaked open and the bondage around her loosened. This is my chance. She stiffened her resolve, waited for it to fall from her shoulders, then leapt toward the water.
A hand grabbed her wrist, dragged her back and hurled her into a cage.
The door slammed shut.
“Ma! Pa!” she shouted. What’s happening?! She grabbed the bars, tried to shake them loose. Something crashed into the cage behind. Frightened to stillness, she found a man with a cannonball gut standing over her, machete in his hand.
“Pipe down or I’ll put ye’ to sleep.”
Inia collapsed. Thoughts of her family filled her mind as she sobbed into her arm. Her mother kissing her forehead; father telling stories as they sailed along the rivers they called home; playing chase with her brother, sister and cousins; aunty and uncle bickering. Through tearful eyes she looked upriver, yearning to see them. Nobody was there. Even the ducks had fled, whistling birds silent, swirling petals swept against the bank. Black cloud now masked the sun and a breeze bit her arms and face.
“Come on, lads. If there’s one, there’ll be more.” The boat rocked into motion.
Inia clutched the cold iron bars as rain began to fall.