Excerpt for The Ghost And Its Shadow by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Copyright 2013 Shaun Hick

ISBN 978-0473254940

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By Shaun Hick

This is for you.


“I killed her quickly. There was no struggle. Her eyes flashed open for a moment; perhaps long enough to catch a glimpse of something — a monster. But soon they stared absently into darkness; wide and empty and dead, like those of the doll she held when I found her.

“Her limpness made it easy to pull her from the tent. I dragged her out into the moonlight and paused. The scent of her flesh stirred feelings within me, feelings I didn't know existed until I found them there leering at me from deep within my being; feelings uncovered by horrible chance, or persistent digging.

“I felt nothing; no reason, no right or wrong, no regret, no remorse. There was just an ache, an ache to do this thing I knew to be wrong. The numbness dampened my senses and stifled my usually precise actions. I pulled her from the tent, eager to take her far from there and to a dark place. I was absent and not thinking and knocked something over in my withdrawal.

“The sharp clatter of metal and rock preceded the soft thud of ash and coal and I watched as a slumbering fire-bed coughed in its sleep. I remember it spewing brilliant embers into the night; embers that turned from sunny orange to bloody vermillion then black. I didn't hesitate after that. I pulled her down the bank and headed to the river.

“Behind me I heard muted whispers from a second tent, then shuffling, unzipping and soft, cautious footfalls on the dry earth.

“I pulled the girl into the water. I scraped her body along the muddy bottom with her head held beneath the surface, forgetting for a moment she was dead.

“Then the scream came. Not shrill like a woman's but ... sadder. The woman's scream came later and was forgettable, another noise in the night no different to the many animal and elemental noises that permeate the darkness. The man’s scream though, I will remember that always. Men believe wrongly they can protect their loved ones from the monsters of this world. Their screams spew the truth.

“I swam into deeper water then briefly released my grip on the girl before clamping down again across her thigh and pelvis, reveling in the ease with which her bones broke.

“Torchlight played erratically on the water nearby. It stabbed desperately into the pockets of wavering darkness in search of us. The light-play was beautiful and pathetic and no more than token despair.

“I blinked, releasing a tear that became one with the river as I pulled her down into the deep dark.”


My first memory is of death. I remember the smell of flesh and blood burning in the hot sand beneath a cruel unyielding sun. I remember the sounds; the tiny screams for help struggling to raise themselves above the monotonous drone of feasting flies. And I remember the sight ...

I crawled up out of the pit and onto the rim of the nest where I struggled for footing. I slid back down to a mess of bloody shells before clambering up once more. The sand burnt my belly but I failed to move, rooted to the spot by the scene before me.

Bodies of my siblings were strewn across the bank. The dead were mutilated and swarming with ants and flies. Even their eyes, their gorgeous wide eyes that had glimpsed only a brief moment of life, were being eaten. A few were still alive and writhed and screamed as they were claimed. Their deaths were painful.

This was my first glimpse of the world and it terrified. I cried for help and took several steps forward before tumbling down the slope of the nest and into the mess of bodies and ants. They came at me then, the tiny murderers. The pain from their bites lingers even now. I stopped when they struck. A mistake but, for one only moments old, I knew no better. Then as they bit me, attacked my hind-legs with their pincers and poisons, I saw the tongue-poker.

It, as I later came to understand, was the cause of this hell. It was huge, a mass of silver and sable leather, arced talons and a bloodied mouth. I watched as it flicked its tongue at one of my siblings then gulped her down its sinewy throat.

Not understanding the danger, I called to it, screamed to it that I was in pain; hopeful this creature was a saviour. It heard and came to me slowly. It moved with menace yet care and I crawled a short way towards it before the pain became immense and I turned my attention to kicking the ants free of my legs. This just served to excite them.

I called again for help and the dark tongue-poker promised this with its calmness amidst the chaos. It stood over me, licked me with its course tongue, dribbled saliva and blood upon me and then — I smile just thinking of it — then it vanished, tail-first into the sky. It’s a memory I will carry always.

At the time I didn’t know what had happened, just that this creature lurched upwards suddenly becoming a distant shadow in the brilliant blue. Then that shadow separated; one half plummeted to the ground while the other remained in the air. My vision failed then as ants covered my face but I recall words screamed from above, from that floating shadow: “Move Yigit! Damn you gyrm, they’re dying!”

Then several things happened. I heard an eruption of water then a rustling through the undergrowth. I could see nothing now but cried out. I called loudly to the voice in the sky before I was suddenly buried. The sand piled around me and panicked the ants into releasing their grip as something large moved over the top of us. I lay buried awhile before finding the energy to lift my head. I broke through the sand and I cried out again as the ants returned to finish me. Suddenly we were devoured — the ants, my tiny self — we found ourselves jostling in darkness. The next thing I remember was the coolness of water. It surrounded me and weighed me, washed me clean of the ants and sand then pulled me through a teeth-lined opening into reeds where I floated for the first time. And where, upon turning, I first laid eyes upon my mother.

Though immense to me, she was small for an adult gyrm, no longer than the tongue-poker who’d raided the nest. She was coloured a much lighter shade of brown than the dirt-coloured waters of the creek in which she lived and marked here and there with dark patterns that could be mistaken for leaf-shadow. She was and remains the most beautiful creature I have ever seen.

I called to her at once, in a joy unmatched in my life since. But I could tell even then that much was wrong. They were sad, those yellow eyes of hers. Frightened and confused also but belying that was a terrible sadness.

“What have I done?” she said.

Though I would try for a long time to talk, my words only came out as small noises. But that did not stop me trying. Her words were carried in the air and through the water as sounds only we and birds understand. Birds because of our history and I mention this because it was a bird who answered her question.

“Nothing,” came the reply from overhead, a voice familiar to me already despite my short time in the world.

After some searching I saw the bird in the low branches of a tree overhanging the water; a mighty bird from the family of eagles. Before I could take in much of the creature’s detail, my mother called to me. She bit sharply at the water and vibrated her torso. Hide!

I dropped quickly, my first time beneath the surface. My sight deteriorated as a secondary eyelid slid over my pupils, protecting them from the water. The impairment to my vision seemed to spur my other senses into life. I was saturated by smells, sounds, feelings. So much life, so much movement, from the tiniest flex of a fish-fin to the rumbling of monstrous goings-on upstream. My hind-legs still stung from the bites of the ants and I could not steer with the ease I wished but, with a flick of my tail I was still able to find my way back to my mother. I hid beneath her, enthralled and excited by my first adventure into this new world.

I heard the voice continue from somewhere above the bank, muted by the water but audible none-the-less. “You did nothing Yigit. I don’t pretend to fully understand your kind’s behaviour but ... all mothers I’ve known have killed or been killed defending their young. But you —”

“I didn’t know Kian.”

“— you did nothing. You lay in the shallows and let those tongue-pokers slaughter them. All but that unfortunate thing hiding beneath you. Had I not acted when I did, it would be dead also.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Wrong? No, unlucky I think is all. Rivun, Queen of eagles once claimed to have killed a great roo out on the plains. A creature reputedly as white as the clouds and with eyes redder than blood. The beast put up an immense fight but Rivun is without peer in the killing art. She claimed later that the flesh of this harbinger roo was the reason she was able to waste Almor the Falcon Prince days later. Some believe the flesh of these harbingers holds some magic, some impetus to overcome the extraordinary.”


“Of death. Show me again.”

What Kian spoke of was my appearance. Later I would come to understand how different I am. My skin is white. From my nose to my underbelly to the scutes of my tail. The only part of me that holds any colour are my eyes which I’m told (unlike Rivun’s roo) are the blue of a kingfisher’s plumage. I am unlike any other gyrm and that is what Kian meant.

My mother drew backwards clearing a path for me to surface in the calmer water by her jaws. Come. It’s safe.

I surfaced, blindly trusting her as instinct dictated. I headed for the reeds and floated there. My eyes withdrew their transparent lids allowing me to clearly take in the world around and above me.

The eagle was there in the tree. It was a creature of great poise, predominantly brown with flashes of white on its chest and face. It observed me with eyes so intense I felt the need to hide. I cried out at once but was comforted by my mother. It’s safe. He won’t harm you.

“It’s a rarity for one to survive beyond childhood,” the eagle said without altering its piercing gaze. “He is as good as dead. Your world is one of shadows Yigit. You can’t hope to conceal a white gyrm in such a world. He will stand out and draw the attention of any predator nearby. Sadly I fear he will end the day as food for some dimwit fish.”

“He is dead then ...”

“As good as. You can’t be blamed for that. But the others ... they were crying for you Yigit, I heard them from afar. By the time I arrived, the tongue-pokers had already dug them up and when I saw you there in the shallows —”

“I didn’t know what to do. I thought once they were born, I would ... I waited and waited ...”

“They are now bones in the sand Yigit, or bulges in a tongue-pokers belly. You deserve to end this day childless for your inaction before. You will have to fight hard to ensure that isn’t so.” Kian leaned forward. “I came to warn you. The lightning bugs have appeared in the sky to the South. The wet season is almost upon us. Rains have fallen and your little creek will be a torrent before long.” With that Kian leapt from the branch and flew away.

Of course little of what he’d said meant anything to me, they were just words. Their meaning would come later with learning. I understood only the vibrations of my mother, nothing else.

I floated in the reeds, observing the trees on the bank and the many different birds that sat within them, all of whom were watching me. I let out a warning cry and dropped underwater before worming my way deeper into the reeds. I sensed movement from my mother but wasn’t sure. She hadn't said to hide so I surfaced. I felt the tremors in the water that told of her movements but her directions never came. Soon all was still.

I cried out and waited for my mother to respond. She didn’t. I called again and ventured from my hiding spot. After emerging from the reeds I saw no sign of her so retreated back into them.

Tiny fish drew my attention as I waited. They swam in through the vegetation to pick at floating particles in the water. When one neared me I bit at it but missed. I turned and tried again as another passed close to my small jaws but they were too fast for me. I gave up on them and turned my attention to the movements of something larger in the water.

The reeds ahead of me fell aside as a creature pushed its way to where I lay. I cried out the minute it appeared. It was a turtle. Its head snaked out ahead of its shelled body while its four webbed feet pushed at the reeds either side. It stopped in front of me and said something but I couldn’t understand. “Gom,” is what I heard. “Lim gom.”

I explained I was waiting for my mother but my words were still just silly noises.

It raised its head above water a moment then sank down in front of me. I took comfort in its presence. I wasn’t sure of the reason it stayed but was thankful. If I’d faced the wait for my mother alone, I’m sure I would have lost patience, ventured after her and almost certainly met with death. With the turtle as company I was content to wait.

I don’t begin to understand the ways of the shellies, as I’ve heard them called but I believe this particular one was guarding me. I say this because it was only with great reluctance that it eventually left.

By that stage it was late afternoon. The sun had dropped behind the trees on the bank and the sky had darkened in the east with grey clouds. The weeds where I had begun my wait were now plastered horizontal in deep water. The level of the creek had risen considerably. The turtle and I had been forced to continually follow the shallows as they crept ever slowly up and onto what had once been the bank. We eventually crawled up onto a rock to escape the quickening current before the turtle lost its grip and disappeared. I saw its head pop up briefly downstream then not again.

My grip on the rock lasted only moments longer. As the water rose around me and the current tugged my toes, eventually plucking me free, I remember closing my eyes in the hope it would aid me in hearing my mother somewhere near swimming to my rescue. But as the water carried me off, I could hear nothing but a terrible roar.

For only a moment I struggled to fight the current before realising the futility. I kept my eyes closed as the water did as it pleased. It pulled me to the surface, allowing me brief tastes of air and briefer glimpses of a sunset sky then dragged me to the bottom over rocks and through roots and drowned trees. It flung me several times (twice I remember but more I’m certain) over falls and into the chaotic depths below, before eventually swirling me upwards into the saturated foliage of a large tree uprooted by the flood.

I was able to grip a branch and crawl along it to get out of the water. Breathless and without energy to do any more than lay, I rode along on the floating tree as it entered waters now too immense for me to even comprehend. I recall looking and seeing no banks, no shallows, just an undulating brown mass stretching to all horizons.

The tree rocked, striking unseen obstacles in the depths below. Instinct told me to abandon the ride, that I was safer in the water but I chose otherwise. I worked my way deeper into the upturned branches. I crawled and pushed through great clumps of wet foliage till I found myself in a place shadowed by the dense canopy. The river water appeared as a blackness far below. It was eerily calm within that cavern of branches, the chaos outside muted and distant. And in that false sanctuary I sensed I wasn’t alone.

I turned my head till I saw a slight movement on a branch. Whether it sensed it was being watched I don’t know but shortly after I spotted it, the tongue-poker turned its head and its devilish eyes met my own.

Its tongue left its mouth frantically, tasting me from afar. “Gunnadye,” it hissed, with what seemed like a smile spread across its face. Its words, its language, made as much sense to me as our own at that point but I understood its intentions clearly as it turned towards me.

The tree took another hit at that moment, almost knocking both of us from our perches. We both regained our footing before a much more violent collision knocked us free. I plummeted into the shadowed water below then struck a muddy bottom just beneath the surface. I panicked, lashed my tail and shot forward into more submerged branches. Underwater I struggled, trying to clamber through the labyrinth of mud and leaves. I stopped when progress became impossible and tried to break the surface but the weight of foliage pressing down from above defeated my feeble efforts. Frightened and lacking energy to fight any further, I resigned myself to death.

Kian had said it would happen after all, that it was a surety. So I waited there wedged beneath the tree, for death to find me. I had seen it take my siblings. Why it had afforded me a few more moments of life, I wasn’t sure. I at least had a chance to see my mother. I had lived, I told myself. I was done.

Then the tree moved.

It was slow at first. I found myself being pushed down into the mud as branches and foliage scraped over me. The pummeling lasted what seemed an eternity, driving out what was left of the breath in my body. Then the weight eased till it felt as if the leaves were caressing me free as they slid over. As the last of them passed, I was plucked up out of the mud in their wake and swirled to the surface where I snatched a breath before tumbling back underwater.

I felt the current strengthen and, desperate to avoid being washed away, I lashed my tail violently and shot back up to the surface. After breaking through I saw a muddy bank directly ahead of me and fought hard to get there. Upon reaching the shallows, my feet gripped the mud and I rested momentarily, thankful to no longer have to swim. The water lapping at my tail spurred me onwards up the muddy slope and onto a patch of dry grass. Once I was a safe distance from the water, I turned my attention back to the tongue-poker.

I saw tracks in the mud close to where I had come ashore then without too much searching spotted the lizard further inland. It was winding its way slowly up a tree, its black skin highly distinguishable against the ghostly white bark. It stopped halfway up and turned, its eyes instantly drawn to me again. I cannot hide, I thought to myself. I was beginning to understand just how dangerous a thing that was.

It hissed at me, saying something rendered indiscernible by the distance between us. Its tongue danced excitedly, but just for a moment; then it darted from its mouth and fell limp — a result of its belly being slammed into the trunk by a pair of powerful talons.

Bark and blood and skin fell away from the spot where the tongue-poker had once clung as Kian the great eagle brought its body to the ground. I lost sight of him so clambered over the bank to where I’d seen him descend. Spikes of grass and tiny jagged stones speared and scraped my underbelly as I struggled over the dry ground. By the time I’d fought my way to where I could finally see him, Kian’s eyes were already upon me.

When I saw him, I cried out. But not for his help. When I saw him, when I saw what he had in his beak, I cried out in fear.

Kian stood upon the tongue-poker, his claws constricting its neck and tail, exposing its rendered stomach — a stomach that had been torn open and mugged of its filling. The sight of my dead sibling in the beak of the eagle terrified me more than anything else had that day.

I turned and headed as fast as I was able for the river. I made it to the mud before a gush of down drafts pre-empted my capture. Such was his power, I was pushed briefly into the mud before being plucked free, held in a single clenched talon. The world of water fell away beneath me as he carried me skyward.

“Don’t struggle or I’ll drop you,” he said as he spiraled higher. “I won’t hurt —”

Even if I’d understood I’m sure I would still have struggled. I feared for my life and twisted with all my might, eventually breaking free of his grasp. I plummeted towards the river for only a moment before I was suddenly talon-bound again.

“Let’s see if we can find your mother before I lose patience little one.” His second grip was firmer and I’d lost the energy needed to get free besides. I was helpless as he flew with me. At first we just circled, before he banked suddenly and picked up speed. He appeared to be in pursuit of a small black bird that darted just above the treetops of the riverbank.

“I am Kian!” he called loudly after it, but the bird seemed to pay him little attention. “Find me a gyrm!” Then he abruptly stopped his pursuit and circled higher.

What happened next I’m not entirely sure but, when I looked, the little black bird had turned into many black birds and they flitted in all directions as far as I could see, growing in numbers as more took flight from distant trees. My fascination of them and of the vast green-brown world strewn out below soon dissipated when I realised Kian was looking down at me.

“This is not how I thought it would be,” he said. “But then, what did I expect? Nothing easy. No. No.” He looked away and the corner of his beak curved into a smile. “Don’t worry harbinger. As tempting as you are, I will abstain. For just as I abstained at your mother’s nest, with so many of you unguarded and ripe for the picking, I will not kill a little thing with no hope of defending itself. If you are meant for my innards then it will be as a reward for my abstinence. Perhaps I’ll meet you again in the belly of a fish I snare tomorrow.”

“Found!” came a tiny voice spat from the beak of a black bird that flashed past us.

Kian turned after it and followed it as it headed upriver. I saw little but the great flood of water below but Kian’s eyes discerned more. “What is she doing in there?”

He dropped into a dive as the little black bird departed and we swerved down to just above the water level before making for a small island in the middle of the river. The lump of dry ground was littered with grass, a few shrubs and just one twisted leafless tree. Beneath the tree, gleaming brightly in the last rays of sunlight was a metal cage. It was rectangular, had four white floats hanging from its top corners and was at least six times the length of the creature lying within it. My mother.

Kian spread his wings and alighted in the tree, dropping me in the grass below. I tumbled till I came to rest against the cage. I swung my head around at once to look at my mother. Her presence comforted me until I saw her eyes. She was terrified.

“Yigit?” Kian called from the tree. “What happened?”

The gaps in the cage were large enough for me to fit through so I crawled inside to get to her. I was overjoyed to feel her nearby despite the fear so heavily pulsing through her body.

“Kian there’s a wyrm here!” she called out nervously.

The great bird left the tree as if startled. There was no grace in his departure this time. Just panic.

“You saw it?” he called down as he started to circle.

“I was swept over the falls then dove to avoid the current,” my mother told him. “I thought I rested alongside a sunken tree. But it was no tree. Once I realised, I panicked. I fled and ... all I could think was to leave the water and I fled into the trap.”

“Do you sense it still?”

My mother was quiet a moment. “No.”

I knew nothing of wyrms. I knew only the fear in my mother’s body and in her voice as she uttered the word, and the panic shown by Kian upon hearing it.

He descended to the highest branch of the tree and perched. His eyes surveyed the surrounding water nervously before turning to my mother. “The cage is open Yigit. Turn and get out.”

“I can’t. My leg is stuck beneath me.”

“You can’t move it?”

“Not without injuring it further. And even then ... Kian there’s a wyrm here! Even if I get out, what do I do? How do I get back above the falls?”

“I’m sorry my friend, I can’t help. But if you don’t get out you may drown in there. These waters won’t abate any time soon.”

“Help me Kian, I don’t know this place!”

“If you can’t get free then cherish what time you have left with your hatchling —” He stopped abruptly. “Yigit?” In an instant he was airborne and soon nothing more than a speck in the sky.

Fear had gripped my mother; Kian had seen it. I felt it now too. She had given no warning for me to hide though so I didn’t. I lay still a moment before turning so I could see the open end of the cage. The river water still rumbled past making it difficult to see anything within the murk but, despite all my senses telling me nothing was there, I felt an unease.

My gaze slowly drifted to trees in the distance. Whether they stood on another island or the river bank itself I couldn’t tell. They were tall and thin and something about the way their canopies moved terrified me. I didn’t know why but their slow sway instilled such an irrational fear in my tiny body.

I crawled up my mother’s left foreleg then onto her head. I returned my gaze to the trees. I remember thinking at that point, I would rather have death come claim me than remain in that petrified state; rather a tongue-poker or bird end my life than be anywhere in sight of those terrifying trees.

Little did I know I was experiencing something that few ever live to tell of — a thing called creep; the one sign, the one outrider to warn that a wyrm is near. That it’s watching. That it’s coming. It’s a warning that manifests itself in the strangest ways, often converging in the most unlikely of places or objects. So unusual, so irrational that often it’s dismissed. And to dismiss that sense of fear, is to risk your life.

The wyrm spoke before I saw him, before I sensed his whereabouts. His deep voice rolled up out of the water just beyond the cage opening, washing over my mother and me where we cowered at the far end.

“Of all the gifts these waters have brought me,” he said, “I think perhaps your harbinger gyrmling would be the most unique.” For the first time I saw bubbles break the surface just to the right of the cage opening. “Problem I have though little gyrm, is that this is an old cage, a forgotten one. If I come in and the door falls then I’m in there till I drown.” A low growl emanated from the same place as the bubbles. “Why don’t you come out here and let me eat you.”

When we didn’t move I saw some more bubbles rise. This time they appeared within the shallow water just inside the opening. “Send me the harbinger then. I’ll leave you be.”

My mother turned, twisting her trapped hind-leg. She swiveled as best she could to align her snout with where the voice had come from.

“He’s dead anyway,” the wyrm added. “You can lose him to some fish or bird, or you can use him to ensure you live another day.”

I felt my mother tense. Before it was only fear that pounded away inside her but the wyrm’s words had caused another emotion to traverse her body, something I knew nothing of.

“How do I know you will keep your word?” she said.

“Because I’m not especially hungry. I’ve tasted enough gyrms to know you’re not worth the expense of energy. But I can’t pass up the chance to snare me a harbinger. I hear they give you a ... kick.”

My mother jerked her head and I fell off. I landed just ahead of her on the cage floor. I was about to turn to go back to her when I saw movement at the opening. The surface swirled and for a brief moment I thought I discerned two eyes before the water consumed them.

“Come little one.”

I had no comprehension of what lay there in wait, what those frightening eyes belonged to. I waited but no warning came from my mother. I cried out but she said nothing. I trusted her to let me know when I must hide and that warning was to be obeyed without question. But so was her silence. I believed that despite the fear I was feeling, the fear I sensed in her, the danger I perceived to be so near ... I believed that despite all that, her silence meant I was safe.

I turned to go back to her but the cage shook suddenly and I half slid, half tumbled towards the water, stopping just short. I’d fallen so that I faced my mother and again noted the sadness in her eyes. They were so sad those pretty eyes of hers.

I heard the water by my tail churn but didn’t move. I looked to her, where she lay at the far end of the cage. She was so beautiful.

“Before you devour that thing,” came another voice, “tell me where she is.”

The voice that spoke was not that of the wyrm behind me. In fact it had come from some way off, from the other side of the island. I couldn’t see the source, though it sounded muted as if its owner was submerged.

I turned as the cage shook again. I saw signs of a disturbance in the shallows where those eyes had briefly been.

“You had better have a good reason for interrupting my meal,” the more familiar of the two voices answered from just outside the cage. “I don’t know where the flood has flushed you from wyrm, but this is Twotoe’s river. And I am he. Show yourself and submit else I come teach you some manners.”

A long silence followed. Even the river seemed to quieten as it slid past the small island, as if eager to listen. When no reply came, Twotoe surfaced.

I saw first his head then the curve of his back break the water in the shallows of the island. It was the first time I’d seen a wyrm and I was curious more than scared. His design was similar to my mother, to myself; but was far larger, far bulkier, far meaner in every way. His snout was broad, the teeth dirty and gleaming along his clenched jaws in the fading light. His head was covered in ugly bumps and his back displayed ridges of large distinct scutes. He appeared uniform in colour from what I saw, a muddy brown like the colour of the water in which he hid.

“Speak!” he growled, causing the water to ripple around his midriff. He sank till only his eyes and nostrils showed, repeated his demand, “SPEAK —” then vanished in a violent splash.

Another long silence followed his disappearance; long enough for doubt to spread as to whether a response would ever come. Eventually it did but only after Twotoe reappeared in the main channel of the river. His head reared skyward revealing the paler skin of his neck. His jaws opened wide and a stifled roar left his throat. He remained in that strange stiffened position for some time and when I saw his forefeet break the surface I realised some immense force had hold of him just behind his front legs. In the churning water around his midriff I saw the top part of another wyrm’s jaw briefly appear. It was deep green in colour. It vanished beneath the surface, pulling Twotoe down so only his nose-tip showed, pointed skyward.

“Tell me where I can find her,” came a voice not belonging to Twotoe but very near to him. It was deep like his, but calm and precise in the delivery of its threat. “Tell me or I crush your ribs.”

“I ...” Twotoe reared upwards again, breathless. “I ...”

“She is here somewhere wyrm, tell me. Do I stay to this river?”

“I don’t know! This is my river! Who are you —”


The water churned violently and after it settled it bore a crimson stain that snaked away with the current.

“Down-river,” Twotoe said quietly in a voice robbed of defiance. “She would be there.”

Again he vanished.

Moments later his head and back broke the surface downriver. He floated at an odd angle.

After he’d gone I crawled my way along the cage to my mother. She hadn’t moved throughout the entire confrontation though now was struggling to free her trapped leg. I climbed onto her back just as she tore it free. I felt her pain at once. The leg hung loosely at her side and she groaned in discomfort as she gingerly pushed her way down to the cage opening.

With trepidation she slid into the water where once there had been a dreadful set of eyes peering up at us. Her body felt as if it would explode from fear. I clung on as tight as I could as she slipped in the water and swam out of the cage. She veered to her right at once then whipped her tail and darted through the shallows of the island before launching upriver into the main torrent.

Waves tore me from her back at once. I rolled along her tail and into the water and splayed my legs, not trying to swim. I knew without her to carry me I was as helpless as a leaf in that current. I was washed back into the shallows around the island where I grasped hold of one of the sunken roots of the leafless tree. I slowly worked my way to the surface then along the root and out of the water. I called loudly for my mother, screamed for her as I had when I was born, hoping she was near, hoping she would hear and come for me.

And then I saw her.

In the water sweeping past the island I saw her slender form appear briefly from the murk. I clambered over the roots and onto firmer ground in an attempt to keep her in sight. It wasn’t until I’d worked my way through a carpet of spiky grass that I saw her again. She crawled with visible discomfort from the shallows near the cage, stopped a moment, then turned back into the water. I called loudly to her thinking she was going to leave again but she didn’t. She frantically swam into the cage then crawled her way up its length to its end and turned.

It was then I sensed the creep. This time it wasn’t in the trees but in the shallows of the island. Something was in the mud, a root or rock I couldn’t tell, but I found myself fixated on it. I watched as muddy particles of river water gradually consumed it till it had gone. Such an insignificant event, but I found it terrifying. I turned and hurried through the holes in the side of the cage and resumed my safe place atop my mother’s head. We both remained motionless there as a face rose out of the murky water at the cage opening.

Two gold-flecked eyes peered up at us, set on that deep-green head I’d glimpsed moments earlier. Unlike Twotoe, this wyrm’s top jaw was almost smooth; the majority of his trademark bumps appeared higher on the head behind two raised ridges of skin near his eyes that gave the appearance of sawn-off horns. His tail appeared briefly on the surface outside the cage as two converging rows of triangles.

My mother struggled to turn away, her limp leg hindering her movement. In her panic she slammed her head into the side of the cage and I fell off and rolled down towards the wyrm. I was just about to turn and try and crawl back up to her when she disappeared. A wave of water washed over me and when I opened my eyes, I found myself in darkness. Beneath me was a soft fleshy floor. Faint glimmers of light peered in at me between gaps in great clenched teeth. I turned and found myself looking at the back of a throat.

“Please,” I heard the muted voice of my mother beg. “Leave me alone. Please.”

The jaws that held me then tilted and parted, dropping me into mud.

“You’re far from alone.”


On a night where in the darkness of the world around me lurked creatures feared by so many, it’s strange that I felt so calm. That I’d through chance or otherwise, survived a journey into a wyrm’s jaws filled me with a false sense of safety and quashed my fear of death.

My mother and I remained within the trap as night drew on and the water rose. It was impossible now for her to remain dry as she huddled in the corner, the river lapping at her tail. With each retreat of the tiny waves I expected to see the top of a wyrm’s nose emerge. I heard splashes and I saw eyes once, upriver in the moonlight, but nothing showed.

The island shrunk gradually as the river crept up its sides. The one twisted tree bent over at an unnatural angle as the mud bonding its roots was washed away. Soon there was very little dry ground left and the cage was half-filled with water.

“What do I do?” I heard my mother whisper to the dark. “What do I do?”

I made a small noise in response. I think I did little more than remind her that she wasn’t alone.

“Kian called you unfortunate,” she said, this time to me, “is this what he meant. Are you causing this ...”

Her words soothed me, warmed me against the cold.

“I don’t know what you are. Why you survived. Why I did nothing for the others. So many told me not to worry, that instinct would take over when the time came. But it didn’t. I was so, so scared.”

I watched as tears welled in my mother’s eyes; then something else caught my attention. I turned, just as a shadow came out of the darkness.

Massive and silent it struck the small island, dislodged the crooked tree then swung around and thudded into the cage. I fell from my mother as a clatter of metal signalled the dropping of the trap door. The cage was then pulled from the bank in the wake of what had hit us. It sunk till only the very top of it remained above water, held by the floats at its four corners. I climbed up through gaps in the top and sat on the metal mesh as we were washed down-river. Within the cage I saw my mother struggling. I saw her head break the surface when the waves of water permitted but otherwise she was submerged and trapped.

The large tree that had dislodged the cage moved silently ahead of us till the groaning of its branches signalled a change. It crashed into a bank of dry land, failing to take the bend as the river swung right. The forces behind the floodwaters only just pulled it away before our cage struck the same patch of riverbank.

We started to pull sideways as the current grabbed at the rear floats. I turned to look down-river just as we were struck again. The cage was pushed up the bank a short distance and wedged in the mud. I looked down at my mother. She’d been submerged for much of the journey and was now relishing the air afforded her in the tiny angled space above water. She seemed rigid from fear or exhaustion and I took the opportunity to drop down onto her back.

We remained that way for much of the night, fearing the shadows that might mean another tree unwilling to take the bend. Much smaller debris did strike the cage but nothing large enough to dislodge it. The water rose only a little more then seemed to find a level it was content with, leaving room enough for us both to breathe.

At some point then I must have slept for the first time in my brief life. I can’t recall how it came about or whether it could even be called sleep. As the thin white lines of dawn cut across the darkness like the scars of a flesh wound, I realised there’d been parts of the night I couldn’t recall, great episodes that seemed to have passed without my knowing. It scared me that it could happen, that I could be absent when I knew my survival depended on my wariness. I vowed not to sleep again ever but next I remember the sun was baking down on me. It burned a hole in a pale blue sky just above the horizon and drove me from my mother’s snout and into the water by her face to cool. My skin, white as it is, does not handle the heat very well. The water cooled me comfortably enough at first but I was driven back up onto my mother when lethargy took hold. Wetted by the waters, the sun’s effects seemed less harsh.

“Death will be a blessing to you,” came a frightening voice.

I looked to my left and watched as the familiar and horrifying face of Twotoe, reared up out of the shallows alongside the cage. He dragged himself half out of the water then collapsed heavily in the mud.

His appearance startled me but not my mother, who didn’t even move. I think perhaps she had sensed his approach long before he’d shown himself.

I eyed him with interest, marvelling at his immensity. His left forefoot was pressed against the cage and I saw that it had just the two toes. Behind it and along his midriff was a sizeable wound.

“Now,” he said, clearly exhausted and in need of recharging in the sun, “before we were interrupted I was telling you how much I wanted to eat your little gyrmling there. Well, things have changed. That pesky reaver-wyrm went and did some damage that may not come right. Ever. My life got a lot harder as of last night little gyrm and I’m going to need all the magic and mumbo-jumbo I can sink my teeth into if I’m to live forever.”

I felt my mother tense.

Twotoe may have sensed it too but if he did, he didn’t let it show. He kept on talking. “Here’s what I figured. If that little harbinger came from you, you must have some magic in you too. At the very least it can’t hurt to bite you open and take a look. So after eating him —”

My mother lunged forward. I had sensed it coming, felt her body coiling in anticipation of the move, but I was still unprepared when it happened. I landed in water as the cage shook around me. When I surfaced I saw my mother squeezing through a gap where the cage door had skewed when it had struck the bank. She slid through with some difficultly then veered to her left to the bank beyond.

I called after her and she stopped. I was only vaguely aware of movement behind me as her tremors raced across the bank to where I lay.

Come! she said. COME!

I scrambled through the side of the cage and out onto the muddy bank. I saw my mother belly-sliding ahead of me parallel to the river. Even with her leg trailing uselessly, I would have had difficulty catching up to her had she not regularly tried to dart to her right in an attempt to scale the slope to higher ground. Each time she tried she slid back down and lay still for a moment, losing energy with each failed attempt. Her final try at getting up the bank resulted in a backwards slide that brought her all the way to the water’s edge. And that was when Twotoe erupted from the shallows.

I could only watch in horror as his massive jaws slammed shut across my mother’s dangling hind-leg. I saw the pain in her eyes and felt the agony sear through her flailing body as Twotoe tried to swing her into the river. But his own strength and the already damaged leg proved to be his undoing. The limb tore from her body with a silent ease. I stopped and stared at it, dripping blood across Twotoe's clenched teeth, momentarily unaware that the object flying through the air in the background and crashing into the mud further along the bank, was actually my mother.

I waited till Twotoe veered back into the water then continued my slow pursuit of them across the mud. By the time I reached my mother’s motionless body, Twotoe had already dragged himself from the water and lay by her tail. I continued forward as he lifted his head and tossed the torn leg into his mouth and swallowed.

“I can already taste the magic in you,” he said to my mother, his jaws nudging her tail menacingly.

I veered away from where he lay and went to my mother’s head. I saw the pain in her eyes. And fear. And sadness.

“I should never have left you,” she said quietly to me, as if no one else was around, as if nothing else mattered but us. “I’m sorry my little thing. I’m sorry that you were mine and not some other’s, someone who could have helped you live a little longer.”

I made a noise in response then turned and faced Twotoe whose vibrations betrayed his movements. I watched as he rather oddly crawled slowly backwards away from my mother and into the water. His eyes were dancing from me to something else, something above and beyond me.

Once he’d completely vanished into the murk of the river, I climbed atop my mother and turned to look up the bank. What I saw there is still burned into my memory. There, I remember thinking, there ... is death.

Higher up the bank on a patch of bare ground lay the green wyrm of the previous night. I only then appreciated how large he was. He was longer than Twotoe by perhaps a metre, his body fleshed out with lean muscle. His skin was the shade of the deepest parts of a shadowed canopy, a green that seemed so out of place amidst the sunburnt browns and yellows of the land in which he lay. His jaws were agape, the whiteness of his teeth and inner mouth shining in the early morning sun.

I studied him in awe, secretly hoping that one day I would grow to be like him. Sadly I would later realise that could never happen, but at that moment I regarded him enviously and without fear.

“Come to the water and I’ll spare your life,” I heard Twotoe call from somewhere in the river. “The reaver will kill you both.”

My mother lifted her head a little. I saw her look to the high bank as well. She was silent a long time then eventually allowed her head to drop into the mud. She shut her eyes and her entire body seemed to deflate.

I slid from atop her and landed in the mud alongside. Its coolness was welcoming and I did my best to bury myself in it by wriggling around. Once I’d sufficiently hidden myself, I shut my eyes. I lay there quietly, trying to read my surroundings through the small vibrations in the mud and the sounds and smells in the dry air.

I felt neither my mother move nor the wyrm higher up the bank and once I accustomed myself to the pulse of the river behind me, I was able to sift the irrelevancies from my surroundings — the river, the squelching of the mud, the call of distant birds — till the vibrating wings of the little insect to my left had my complete attention. I followed it blindly though the air as it flew in search of a safe place to drink, a place where the mud had been disturbed. And though my eyes were closed I saw it land beside my jaws. I heard it and I felt it and I flicked my jaws in its direction quickly and caught it. I opened my eyes and watched the colourful little dragonfly disappear into my throat. It was my first meal and should have been memorable for that reason alone, but it was soon to take on much more significance.


I looked up the bank and met the eyes of the green wyrm. His mouth was still agape but something about him was different. It took me a long while to work out that the difference lay in the hinge of his jaws, where the muscles had curled ever so slightly. Into a smile.

“Were you a wyrm,” he explained, “it would be your name. Cloudskin Dragonpincher. Or maybe Fishflesh. Both names would change as you age. The first, to reflect your uniqueness. The second, your most impressive kill.”

My mother stirred. She swung her head a little toward me, partially obscuring my view of him. She looked my way a moment then shut her eyes. I saw in that brief instant, the pain they still harboured. “We are not wyrms,” she told him.

“No little Threefoot,” he said. “Clearly not.”

“I am not Threefoot. My name is Yigit.”

“Sounds like the noise a frog makes when you puncture its belly. What does it mean?”

“It’s just a name, it has no meaning.”

He was quiet a moment before adding, “And the harbinger? Have you given him a frog-popping name too?”

“No.” She opened her eyes and looked to me. “He has no name. I didn’t think ... Kian said he would die.”

“Everyone dies little gyrm. Give him a name before he meets his end then at least the world will know that he lived.”

I found the fact that both my mother and the wyrm were staring at me suddenly troubling. I left my muddy puddle and climbed atop my mother. I lay there, still tasting the dragonfly in my mouth.

My mother moved her head so she lay the way she had before, facing the wyrm up the bank. “And what name do you have? Green killer of all things? Large murderer of anything that moves?” When he didn’t answer she looked away. “I understand why Twotoe fears you. I think I even understand why you have yet to come down here and finish me, given I’ve neither the energy nor strength to flee. But ... I’ve been told that my hatchling possesses some magic. That every creature that sees him will want to eat him.” She looked back at him. “But you spat him out.”

“He wasn’t tasty.”

“Will you hurt us now? Either of us?”

The green wyrm closed his jaws and slowly raised himself. He high-walked a short distance forward till he’d evaded a tree’s shadow that had fallen across his back then flopped down in full sunlight once more. He closed his eyes. “I won’t kill you today gyrm. Fishflesh either. Tomorrow though? Maybe. If I happen to be hungry and you’re near then yes, expect to be chewed up. At the moment though your biggest concern should be that injury of yours. It won’t get better in the sun. Better to let the little fish clean it than have flies lay their maggots in the wound.”

I felt my mother tense beneath me. “But I can’t go in the water —”

“The wyrm that took your leg is named Twotoe Batsnatcher. And he won’t come near whilst I’m around.”

My mother turned her head first, then slowly swung around completely. She eyed the flooded river cautiously then crept forward and into the water. I felt the relief in her body at once and I leapt in to enjoy a cool swim as well. I returned to the water’s edge and lay by her face as she remained in the shallows. I sensed her unease and felt the anxiety building within her but she was able to quash her fears before they overwhelmed her.

She looked to the green wyrm. “Twotoe called you a reaver.”

“Best not to concern yourself with the affairs of wyrms.”

“I’m not. I’m just trying to understand you —”


“— to see if you might be able to help us.”

“It’s been amusing talking with you little gyrm but do not mistake my pleasantry for concern. When I leave this river you’ll be at Twotoe’s mercy. And whether he eats you or not, is of no consequence to me.”

“Our home is above the falls, we were washed here in the flood. I don’t know how to get back.”

“I doubt there is a way.”

“But there must be.”

“Really? Why? Or else you’ve nowhere to go?”


“Life’s not always convenient little gyrm. You should know that sometimes there is no way back ...”

I saw several small fish appear near my mother’s bleeding wound. I floated towards them and watched them carefully. They appeared to be eating the skin that had come away. I sounded a warning to my mother thinking she was in trouble but she ignored me.

“Then what do we do?”

Tremors in the water around me told of movement and I turned and saw the green wyrm rise up. He stepped towards the edge of the high bank then slid down, landing with an immense thud. Slowly he crawled across the mud towards us. I sounded a warning and hurriedly crawled atop my mother. I felt her body tightening in fear and I readied for her movement, but it didn’t come.

The wyrm’s immensity became apparent as he reached the water’s edge. His head alone was almost as long my mother. I stared into his gold-flecked eyes as he stopped alongside us. “The downside to having that wound of yours cleaned in here, is that the scent of your blood will travel a long way in the flood waters. Your day’s about to get a whole heap worse.”

And with that, he pushed passed us and into deeper water before floating away with the current. I was about to drop back into the water when my mother warned me to, Hold on!

She swung around into the river and lashed her tail. I tumbled from her head and onto her back before regaining my footing, but even then I struggled to stay there as she entered the centre of the river.

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