The beavers had multiplied again and were busy building yet another secondary dam a few fathoms farther down the river. They’d also dragged a corpse to the top of their primary dam and covered it up in twigs and mud. Drakjan didn’t understand why beavers deposited carcasses on top of dams— it made no sense. Quite apart from the fouling of the water, a human corpse was large enough to attract dangerous predators. The beavers could just as easily have dragged the thing onto dry land and buried it there.
But that was beavers for you: extremely useful— impossibly stubborn.
At least this time, none of them had migrated to the tributary that fed into his lake. He wasn’t about to put up with a dam changing the pleasant currents and energies of his lake and getting in the way of fish, and he was glad he wouldn’t have to spend weeks chasing off stubborn beavers to prevent just that.
With a long-suffering sigh, Drakjan expelled the water from his lungs, shrugged on legs, and climbed painstakingly up the bank as close to the dam as he could get. The air was unpleasantly thin when he inhaled a breath of it, and the lack of substance against his body gave him goose bumps. A nearby beaver kit floated on the other side of the dam, almost completely submerged except for its small, suspicious eyes. It didn’t retreat into its lodge, clearly used to his scent and presence.
The waterlogged branches of the dam bit painfully into the soles of his feet as he made his way to the obscured heap of the corpse. At least it hadn’t been dead for long, so Drakjan could drag it onto dry land without much of a mess.
He grumbled to himself as he tugged the body through the thick brambles at the water’s edge, dry twigs and thorns catching on its clothes and Drakjan’s skin.
“The water rushed, the water swelled, a fisherman sat nigh,” he sang, rather than dwelling on the feeling of mossy forest mulch underneath his feet. It had been a while since he’d been out of water, and it always took some time to get used to breathing and walking. “Tempts not this river’s glassy blue, so crystal, clear and bright?”
He hadn’t remembered how soft and vulnerable legs were. Maybe he should have taken the time to go back for his clothes, but it hadn’t occurred to him and seemed too much of a bother now. Oh well, it wasn’t that big a deal. The scratches would heal when he took back his scales.
“To him she said, to him she sung, the river’s guileful queen…” Singing, at least, was pure pleasure; nothing made him as happy as raising his voice and filling the empty air with sound and beauty. The way a melody could lift and carry in this element, the way his voice rang and resonated, deep and powerful and clear… this was the one thing he truly loved about breathing air. “Half in he fell, half in he sprung, and never more was seen.”
Two hundred fathoms or so should definitely be a safe distance from the river. Still, Drakjan was already wearing legs and scratching them up by crashing through the undergrowth, so he might as well make entirely certain nothing dragged the corpse back to contaminate his water.
Another couple of hundred fathoms, and he dumped the corpse out in the open for the carrion-eaters. He caught a small flicker of white and motion from the corner of an eye as he straightened. By the time he looked, though, whatever it was had fled and there was nothing left to see. Nothing but moss and trees and underbrush, at any rate.
The walk back to the river was far more pleasant, now that he didn’t have the unwieldy shape of a hefty dead human weighing him down and catching on every twig. He slowed a bit so he could concentrate on singing. He’d moved on to another old favorite, a sailor’s song. “We love the storms, the roiling swells, the roughness of the freezing gales.” Drakjan had a vague memory of hearing this one from the deck of a ship passing by on the river’s surface, a shadow of motion and mammalian warmth. “We drive our prey with surging sails, hunt them across the endless sea…”
Next, Drakjan sang a boisterous drinking song full of raised glasses and barrels of rum, and then something sweeter and sadder— a more recent tune he’d heard last summer, when someone had staged their drunken revels in the woods not far from here. Drakjan had gotten out of the water to listen to the music they were playing, and spent most of the night dodging clumsy teenagers stumbling off into the trees to grope each other. (Later, when the night paled with approaching dawn, five of the groping teenagers made their way to the lake to take a dip. It always happened, with this kind of party. It had been fine— Drakjan just concentrated on the synthetic heartbeat of the music, letting it drown out the real, living heartbeats in his water.)
He allowed the last, melancholy notes of his song to die away as he found a comfortable rock by the river to sit on. His hair was falling into his face, snagging on his fingers in tangles and knots when he tried to brush it back. Another annoyance of walking on dry land— his hair always snarled when it dried in air, its texture growing unmanageable and rough.
If he’d stopped for his clothes, he would have had a comb. He made do by tugging his fingers through the auburn-streaked mess as best he could, working out the worst of the tangles.
The pleasant summer day turned into evening while he sang ballads, arias, shanties, pop, and rock. The forest’s birds joined him in song as dusk descended. Then, he sang the oldest song he knew, wordless and eternal: a song of death, and rebirth, and the silent comfort of the depths’ embrace.
When dusk darkened into night, the beavers emerged from their lodge and headed out to work on their various projects. One of the new ones startled on catching Drakjan’s scent, slapping the water with its tail as it dove from sight. The sharp clapping sound echoed through the evening’s stillness, and every other beaver in sight immediately submerged, diving for safety.
Drakjan cast off his legs and slipped beneath the surface of the river without a splash, gratefully filling his lungs with water.
He might have paid more attention to his surroundings if he hadn’t been hungry and focused on the small movements of fish gliding through the night-dark waters. He might have— but then again, probably not. It had been a long time since he’d been constantly on guard, always anticipating an attack. He’d almost forgotten what it was like to live with every sense stretched to vibrant fullness, to thrill to every heartbeat drawing near, to every ripple meeting his silent, waiting skin.
Back then, Drakjan would have said that that constant, steel-cold alertness wasn’t something you could unlearn.
Now, though… now, one moment he was lazily drifting towards his lake, languid with song, the remembered thrum and flex of melodies running through him like a joyful current. He was looking forward to the sweet cold blood of his dinner, the catch of scales against his lips, the desperate struggle of a small life winking out in his grasp—
The next instant, something unseen brushed against him.
He was caught off guard, couldn’t stop his immediate, instinctive twist to evade and push away. That single powerful flex of his body was enough to trap his caudal fin in mesh and draw the net tight around his body, crushing his pelvic fins against his stomach and ensnaring his arm and shoulder.
He froze in the water, still as a stone, his hair drifting around him in an obscuring cloud. He could make out the gossamer threads of the entrapping net now, visible only in glimpses where the current and the glimmer of light from the surface caught them at exactly the right angle. They were woven of bast and wax and a faint whisper of enchantment, faded but sharp against his skin. There had to be anchors somewhere, too, weighed down with rocks or tied to submerged roots. And on the surface, there would be a bell or swimmer of some kind to make it obvious that something larger than a river trout had swum into the trap.
A trout would thrash and try to tear loose. It was the natural response— Drakjan felt the same urge, wanted to fight free of the net, or twist to cut through its cords with the sharp edges of his fins. The instinctual, panicked response was exactly what nets like this were built for, though. He didn’t dare move more than necessary to prevent the current and his weight from pushing him forward, farther into the net; anything else would only ensnare him further. Worse, he had to have set off the alarm the instant he’d swum into the trap. He was already out of time.
But Drakjan was old, and his blood ran colder than meltwater. And attacking him in his own water… no. No matter what, that was always a mistake.
Wreathed in netting and his own hair, he drew in a deep breath of water, opened his mouth, and sang. Under water, his voice lacked the rich resonance it held in air; every note was narrowed and refined, whittled down to its essential power. Even so, his song was clear and sharp as crystal to any ear that could hear.
The currents of the lake around him swirled in sudden agitation, and rough fur brushed his side. Two deceptively plump bodies curved around him, sleek and graceful… three. Drakjan sang to them, and the beavers heard, paddling close to tear with strong, sharp teeth at the netting that trapped him.
In a single night, one beaver could fell a tree that had grown for a hundred years. This netting was less than nothing to them. They might well fear him after this, flee his presence for a month or a season, but they would calm down eventually— and even if they didn’t, time would solve the problem. Their kits would not remember.
Within moments, the confining pressure of the net fell away. Drakjan wrapped his fingers in the loose threads as the beavers darted off. Sparks of enchantment stung sharply against his palms as he pulled on the net enough to keep the lines to the surface drawn tight, jostling it a little for added realism.
After so long, the wild, feral grin felt almost unfamiliar on his face.
There was no betraying warmth of flesh in the water— no jagged currents caused by someone moving awkwardly, out of their natural element. The only warning Drakjan had was a flash of motion, blurring into silver and black. It was enough. He’d been waiting for this, every muscle and nerve tense and ready.
Steel-scented motion piercing the water. A burst of heat. The wild drumbeat of a heart.
Drakjan shot to the side, twisting to avoid the spear and whipping the tattered remains of the net around the weapon’s shaft as it flashed by. He caught a hard blow to the side as he doubled back. His attacker had adjusted mid-strike, quick as a striking moray eel. Still not fast enough, because Drakjan caught hold of the spear with one hand as he surged upwards, caudal fin flared.
He erupted into air in a burst of spray, lifting almost entirely out of the water. The human had let go of the spear in time to prevent himself from being thrown off balance. He was crouching on a makeshift construction of logs and planks that stretched out over the mouth of the river— high enough it didn’t touch the water, not massive enough to catch attention from below, in the dark. It had to have been constructed in a very short amount of time, and it was exactly the kind of thing Drakjan wouldn’t notice until it was too late.
The hunter was fast, too. He’d already scrambled back far enough on his construction that Drakjan couldn’t grab him, couldn’t reach him even with the spear. In another instant Drakjan would fall back into the water, giving the hunter time to reach the safety of dry land.
Drakjan laughed as he threw himself forwards, crashing down on the wooden construction with the full force of his considerable weight and momentum. The pain of impact was negligible, and entirely worth it. Because the structure collapsed instantly, and the human slipped right off into the water, and then…
Then, he was Drakjan’s.
Everything slowed and stilled around him, long-dormant instincts coming alive with a rush. A warm body in his water, a driving heartbeat resonating through the clear depths. The flailing motions of a creature unsuited to this element, pushing against the water with no rhythm, no traction.
He came up below the human like a wave, inexorable and swift. He twisted into the familiar spiral without thought, graceful and smooth; caught up the human tightly in his grip, locking his arms securely to his sides even as Drakjan flipped them over in the water. He rolled to his back so the human faced up towards the receding surface, now dark with night, but other times alive with the play of sunlight on the surface.
Nothing else felt like this— the dark, welcoming deep beckoning from beneath, the heaving struggles of the blood-hot creature burning in his arms. So alive, so frantic. Quick staccato heartbeat, strong with fear.
Eternal moments passed as he slipped deeper down, the human held tight and close in his arms. Against the night-dark cloud of his hair billowing around them, the human’s last escaping breath gleamed like the rarest and most precious of diamonds.
And that— the moment the human fell back against him, no longer struggling, surrendering to Drakjan, to the deep; the moment his heartbeat stuttered erratically, falling into the most exquisite, fluttering rhythm of them all…
That was when Drakjan remembered, with a sharp wrench that tasted of bitter regret, cut with sorrow: he didn’t do this anymore.
He rose through the water so quickly that his hair blinded him when he broke the surface, and he had to shake it away from his face. The man in his grip didn’t move, wouldn’t breathe, but his heart beat still. Weakly, yes, but it would do.
Drakjan threw the half-drowned human against the muddy ground of the shore with enough force to expel some of the water from his lungs— drew air into his own lungs to exhale it into the hunter’s. It took several more moments, but then he began to retch weakly, heartbeat strengthening and speeding as he began to breathe again.
Drakjan was shivering when he found his legs and dragged the limp shape of the human fully onto dry land. He was shaken, and there were too many possible reasons for it. Was it the frustrated need to finish what he’d started, or relief that he’d caught himself in time? Or was it perhaps simple grief, the pain of everything he had lost…
Except that he hadn’t lost anything— he had decided to give something up. It was his choice, it always had been. He reminded himself of this as he turned the human who’d tried to kill him to his side, waiting for the man’s heartbeat to steady and his breathing to even out into shallow rasps. Drakjan had chosen this life, and that made all the difference.
He walked backwards into the water, watching the semiconscious hunter, and refused to call the wrenching tug at his center longing.
Drakjan spent the night in the deepest part of his lake, curled into a bed of silt cushioned with soft tendrils of waterweed and moss. He did not sing, and he did not sleep.
When dawn turned the lake’s surface silver, gray, and gold, the hunter was gone.
The yearning never truly went away. There were hours when he forgot to notice it— days, sometimes. It was always there, just the same. He’d come close to succumbing many times, but this was the first time he’d been close enough to feel the currents of the weakening struggle against his skin, breathe in the water curling temptingly around a drowning body.
It was a horrible thing to face the prospect of never again experiencing the unique thrill, the absolute rightness and beauty of that last, faltering heartbeat… that last exhaled breath dancing towards the distant surface like a shoal of silvery fish. The coolness of the water seeping into mammalian warmth as life stilled.
He’d never been able to give it up, and never would be. Not truly. But he’d taught himself to delay giving in to the need, just for one more day… one more hour. One more drunken teenager bathing in his lake, laughing and fearless. One more squealing child splashing through the shallows of his river. One more soft, warm air-breather thinking nothing of wandering along the shores of the waters Drakjan claimed as his.
No, the yearning never went away. It wasn’t the most important thing in his life anymore, though.
Drakjan loved this lake— so large and deep and lush with life. He loved this river, warm and sparkling with sunlight in summer, cooled into crystal shades of gray and white in winter. He even loved the wide blue sky above the water and the forest that surrounded it. Loved that all of this was his, undisputed and easy. Most of the time, he even liked the safety and routine of his life here, the way every day blurred into the next, seasons slipping by in a haze of uneventful tranquility.
He wanted this; he wanted to keep it. Wanted to stay. And if he had to give up part of himself to do it…
Drakjan shook his head and opened his eyes, the water swirling with the vivid red of his hair.
It was going to get easier again. He only ached like this now because the hunter’s attack had brought every one of his old instincts raging back to life. As soon as they calmed once more, Drakjan would be fine.
He was still trying to make himself believe this when he jerked around, every sense on full alert, straining. What was that? He’d felt something—
There it was again, and this time he knew exactly what it was. Flesh, blood, and bone. Mammalian warmth dipping into his lake.
Drakjan threw himself towards the intruder without thought. He sliced through the distance from the depths to the shore in less than a heartbeat and broke the surface in a shower of water, already flexing into a lethal forward arc towards the intruder, who—
Who was entirely familiar and crouched casually on the old pier, one hand dipped into the water with no spear or net in sight.
Drakjan flipped out every fin he possessed to slow his momentum, twisting to fall backwards into the lake with a graceless splash, no more than an arm’s length from his visitor.
The expression on Drakjan’s face just then could not have been remotely suitable. It was a good thing the sheriff was occupied with scrambling back from the splash, cursing and fruitlessly trying to brush water from her uniform. Too late, too slow, whispered Drakjan’s instincts. It would have been an easy thing to reach her before she made it safely back to the shore. The pier was low to the water, and—
But it was only a moment. In the next instant he had himself back under control, and was dragging up the mild, friendly curiosity that he thought an early-morning visit by the wolves’ protector warranted.
He breathed out water and inhaled air for the second time in as many days. “Sheriff,” he said, as neutrally as he could.
“Julian.” She nodded to him in the usual careless way of her people. Her smile was not the usual one, though— it was a thin, gray thing instead, and entirely failed to reach her eyes. “I’m afraid I have disturbing news.”
All things considered, Drakjan seriously doubted this. He managed a concerned look anyway.
“There’s been an— accident.” She hesitated over the word just long enough to make it obvious. “Thomas Baker died late last night. I don’t want to go into the details now, but he most definitely did not die of natural causes, and the circumstances are unsettling.”
Judging by the sheriff’s expression, he was expected to show some kind of reaction. Drakjan cast about for an appropriate response before settling on shock and dismay— presumably the suspicious death of a member of her clan warranted as much. Accordingly, he opened his eyes wide and sank deeper into the water, as though recoiling from the news.
It appeared to be the correct response. The sheriff nodded grimly, mouth set. “We’re calling an emergency meeting. Everyone needs to be in on this. Tonight at eight, down in the council hall.”
Silence stretched for slightly too long as Drakjan parsed this in his mind. Leaving aside the fact that this amount of drama seemed like an overreaction to him… hadn’t that sounded suspiciously like an invitation?
“You want me to join you at this meeting.”
She gave him a steady look. “Yes, Julian, we do. You know me, so you know I’m not prone to running scared, but this? This is bad. All the freeholders need to be there because everyone needs to be made aware, and also because we have to pool our knowledge and resources. Even Marian’s coming down from the mountains, and you know how cougars hate crowds.”
Drakjan stared at the sheriff blankly for a long moment before managing to dig up an appropriate response. “I’ll be there.”
The sheriff nodded brusque acknowledgment and took a step back from the end of the pier. She hesitated before turning to leave, though. “You know you can come down to town anytime. You’re always welcome.”
To this, Drakjan truly had no response.
“It’s just that you seem—” but she broke off with an impatient shake of the head. In Drakjan’s previous encounters with the sheriff, she’d been gruff, but good-tempered and energetic. Now, she seemed oddly diminished. “Never mind. I’ll see you tonight. Be careful.”
“I’m never careful,” Drakjan said, too confused and distracted to stop himself. The halfhearted snort the sheriff gave indicated she hadn’t taken him seriously, anyway.
By the time the true absurdity of the situation hit him, Drakjan was back in deeper water, with only the fish to hear his incredulous bark of laughter.
When he’d first arrived, he’d gained his territory by simply taking it. Nobody had been here to defend these waters. As incredible as it seemed, they appeared to have been essentially unclaimed, merely tagged onto the adjoining dry territories. There was some grumbling from air-breathers who wanted to swim or fish or use boats, but nobody ever outright challenged him. Over the years, Drakjan worked out the conditions of coexisting with the people whose territories bordered on his… and as far as he was concerned, that had been that.
But not only was his claim to the lake and river unchallenged— no. No, far more than that, he’d actually become an acknowledged freeholder while he wasn’t paying attention, merely by turning up and sticking around. His claim was now officially recognized and respected by the other freeholders in the area. Respected to the extent that he’d actually become a member of the joint council of leaders.
He laughed until his stomach hurt and his fins trembled. Then, he got ready to walk in the air.