A Fish in the Net
There is something to be said for awakening in a cozy cabin to the sound of a crackling fire, with the blankets all bundled up around you and your toes warm and snug in bed. This delightful circumstance is only further enhanced if it is pouring rain outside. Of course, that is only if your roof isn't leaking, you have more than two blankets, and the fire hasn't gone out in the night. Otherwise it can be a rather dismal start to one's day.
And that is precisely what happened to Ember.
Eventually, he knew, he was going to have to get up and do something - but in the meantime he was content to glare dourly at the dark stone-and-mortar fireplace, listen to the water dripping onto the floor, and wish his blanket wasn't so damp.
Of course it's raining today... Of course it is...
The trip to the river would make him wet, and the trip into town would make him even wetter, and when he returned -
A quick glance at the empty wood box confirmed that all his kindling was piled outside the little cabin, no doubt getting soggier by the minute.
"Good morning, Ember," Ember muttered, swinging his legs out of bed and shivering at the cold touch of the boards. Spring had only just arrived and everything was chilly enough in the early hours without a leaky roof.
He rubbed his eyes, trying to scrub some of the blur out of his vision, and thumped across the floor to the cupboard. It was already open. Tattered cobwebs hung in one corner, and in the other sat a crumble of bread and several pieces of dried fish.
"What's for breakfast?" he sighed, swiping a desiccated fillet from the shelf and gnawing a hunk off the end before growling the answer: "Fish, again. Your favorite. Who needs cheese. Who needs fruit."
As he passed the rickety table he gave it a soft thump, making a few wooden utensils bounce and clatter. Raindrops pattered against the foggy glass panes and he glanced outside. There was nothing new to see; it had all been there since he was a child, except for a wooden fence he had built to keep the animals out of his garden. That, and the willow tree had grown quite a bit. Beyond it lay a field of sultry green grass and the silvery shimmer of the river.
He swallowed the fish and pulled on his boots with one hand, craning his neck to look up out of the small window. A few small stones of odd shapes and colors, several broken arrowheads, and a few rusty coins and fishhooks lined the sill - odds and ends he'd found by the river. Raindrops continued to warp the view, but a few rays of sunshine broke through the clouds and the trees to make the trinkets glow. Might turn into a nice day after all.
A few mended nets were piled in one corner. Something had torn through one of his best traps two nights ago, and Ember glared at it as he passed by, pinching one of the severed strands. More like knife-work than tooth-work or claw-work. Bears and other wildlife would leave visible evidence of their presence, but he'd found no footprints or droppings near his nets. Sabotage, he might have guessed, were he not more or less friends with all the townsfolk.
Irksome, but it would have to wait; his fingers were near falling off from all the mending last night. He scooped up the pile of nets and snatched a fishing spear from the wall as well. He hefted the makeshift weapon, reassured by the weight of it in his hands.
There was no need to be foolhardy.
Ember usually checked his traps once a day, but sometimes twice if he was hungry or needed to repair the nets. He enjoyed his short walks to the nets, if it was winter, and it wasn't raining. But in the summer, almost as many tall tales as butterflies fluttered around the nearby town. Last season, two people had gone missing - a farmer's wife who went out walking and never returned, and a young man who also worked the river - and it made Ember wonder if the tales weren't so tall after all... as it did every year.
Warding off a shudder, he shrugged into his cloak, threw the nets over his shoulder and unbolted the door, shoving it open and stepping outside into the sunny drizzle. The rain had slowed, but showed no signs of stopping altogether.
The damp stack of wood under the window caught his eye and he tossed a few pieces inside the cabin before shutting and latching the door. As Ember trudged toward the garden, easily hopping the fence and sidestepping the scrawny seedlings, he noted that the spring onions hadn't come up.
And he had forgotten to plant any radishes this year.
The day had not turned nice after all, and it was raining rather miserably by the time Ember had collected his nets and lugged one of them into town, smelling of fish and river water and the spicy forest crocuses that bloomed along the path by the river. He actually found the minglement of smells quite agreeable (if overpowering), but the rest of the townsfolk did not, and gave him a wide berth as he pocketed the coins he'd received in exchange for his catch that morning.
Ember strolled through the square, looking for a quick meal. It was all too easy to depend on the town for food instead of his garden. Ember jingled the coins in his pocket with a frown. Three fish in the last two days. Pathetic.
He was already wishing he'd planted those radishes.
A faint commotion to one side of the square caught his eye and he headed in that direction, curious. A tall man with a wide-brimmed hat had attracted a small crowd, and Ember let out a knowing snort under his breath.
"I tell you the truth, I've heard a few wild stories, but this beats everything, Hunter. And I don't believe a word of it."
Ember blinked, wishing he were in the tavern next to the fire. That was where he would head directly after this confrontation was over.
"It's for your own good," Hunter implored, grumbling something under his breath. He held the reins of two fine-looking horses that Ember did not recognize. "If these beasties could talk they'd vouch for every word I've said - and like as not add some chilling tales of their own!"
"Talking horses," guffawed Lundr, shaking his head and side-eyeing the crowd that was gathering behind him. "You're daft."
Ember stopped a few paces away from the two of them, hands in his pockets as he sized up the crowd. They were interested, but pale, as if Hunter had frightened them moments ago. "Are you quite sure," Ember said, lowering his voice to a whisper that still somehow drew the attention of everyone in the square, "you found these fine horses?"
Hunter was a wayfarer, and a stranger in most parts - popping in and out wherever he liked - and things often turned up unexpectedly missing after he left their little town.
"It's no joke, young sir," snapped Hunter, tugging his hat down low over his eyes. Rain pooled in the brim and met near the middle, forming a little waterfall between Ember and the bridge of the other man's nose. "Accuse me all you like, but I know what I saw. Two fine, strapping young boys gone missing near the river, not a trace o' them left. When I came back that way three nights hence, the fire had been doused and their horses left tied to the trees, spooked silly. Two sets of footprints led right up to the water's edge, as if they just walked on in without a care in the world. Mighty suspicious, wouldn't you say?"
"Maybe," Ember admitted, skin crawling as the man's eyes bored into his. "But maybe they just had a spell of bad luck and had to leave in a hurry. They could still turn up."
"Hah. If only that were true." Hunter raised his voice, turning heads in the marketplace. "It's the devils from the river, I'm telling you people! If you're smart, you'll listen up and listen hard. That barrage o' winter storms drove them in from the ocean and deeper tides, where they belong..."
He shoved the reins into Ember's hands and began to pace, stalking between fruit stands and snapping his fingers under the nose of anyone who ventured too close. "First the fish begin to disappear. What's eatin' 'em? It ain't us, that much is certain. Your young net-weaver here brought three fish to the market today. How much is the usual? Forty? Fifty? A sight more than that?"
"Sixty-two he brought last month, in all," piped up a weak voice from the back of the crowd. A ripple of glares turned in that direction as the townsfolk murmured uncomfortably.
Don't encourage him, they were clearly thinking.
Ember didn't quite agree, but he stroked the nose of the dappled bay horse and kept his mouth shut.
"Sixty-two!" Hunter crowed, following it up with a low whistle. "A hundred and fifty a month it was when I left... Quite a change from last spring, wouldn't you say?"
"I'd say so, yeah," mumbled one of the younger men, looking dour.
"Oh, for goodness sakes." A matronly woman swatted him in the shoulder before turning back to perusing a crate of fresh apples. "Hunter here is telling tall tales, just as usual. The river people haven't bothered us in centuries, if indeed they weren't just a legend invented as an excuse for war-mongering and elaborate hunting parties. Why don't you ever think twice before spouting such nonsense? You're liable to addle our youngsters heads, if you haven't already," she added, casting a keen glance at the man who had spoken up earlier.
Rain pattered on the cobblestones as Hunter shifted his weight to his other foot, tipping the brim of his hat. "Madam... I respectfully disagree. First the fish disappear, and now people are going missing. Not from your little village, I grant you, but I have heard some stories on my way back from Ridgefell that would curdle the blood of any sane man. Now, I can't be the only one who's seen some funny goings-on of late. Who else? Anyone? Speak up, now's your chance."
Ember cleared his throat, rubbing the horses' silky necks and glancing around. The brown mare nuzzled him, soft prickly lips flapping around his ear.
A few of the villagers sighed and muttered amongst themselves, but then one man stepped forward. He was flushed red and rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. Ember recognized him. It was Wilifrey, one of the farmers who lived up the valley.
"He's right," he said, sounding a bit defeated. "I tried to ford the river last week with the wagon, and the horses wouldn't set foot in the water. And we all saw Ember's nets. There's something amiss here, and no mistake."
"Nonsense!" shouted the woman. "I'll believe it when I see it!"
"Have care, Madam, or you may just get your wish!" roared Hunter.
But they were both drowned out by a myriad of other voices, all intent on having their own say in the matter. Whickering and tugging at the reins, the horses nervously danced away from the kerfuffle and Ember was all too happy to lead them away from the square.
The massive fireplace crackled festively, spitting sparks onto the hearth and filling the tavern with a nice smoky, pitchy smell that Ember always missed when he was at home. It was a miracle his decrepit chimney hadn't sent his cabin up in flames in the summer, but in the wet season it was always so damp and drafty that it was all he could do to ignite a modest blaze.
"...I think Hunter's right. Something's different this year, I can feel it in my bones. There's a... a presence here - an evil sprite, maybe?"
"Eating fish? You must be joking."
"Nay, nay, but they do bring bad luck! There's magical things in the deeper woods... things that oughtn't be disturbed."
Rubbing his hands together and blowing into them, Ember crouched next to the hearth, watching the men at the nearest table slurp their beers and argue about the most exciting thing to happen in their town in months. He preferred to listen quietly, and so far had nothing of importance to add.
"Well, good thing I live in the village. I ain't seen nothin' strange."
"Count yerself lucky. I live on the outskirts of town and my wife is afraid of her own shadow. Anytime somethin' goes bump in the night, guess who gets to light the lantern and investigate."
"What about you, Ember?"
He glanced up, picking up the half-empty mug of cider he'd set on the hearthstones and swirling it a bit to mix up the dregs. "Eh?"
They were all looking at him now, tanned and withered faces etched in shadow and eyes glinting in the firelight. Willifrey lifted his mug of beer and raised an eyebrow. "You live in a pretty nice spot on the river."
"That's true! What've you seen in your neck of the woods?"
Enjoying the attention, Ember took a casual sip of his cider and shrugged. "Every other night it seems I'm mending nets... something's been at them, but I can't for the life of me make out what."
"A sprite!" someone hissed. "Bad luck, I tell you!"
"A bear, maybe?"
"No tracks." Ember stood, stretching, and stared into the fire. "But something's been eating my fish, and I'm going to find out what."
It hadn't occurred to him to do anything about it - not until that moment. But standing there in the firelight before all those grown men, it seemed somehow fitting.
They stared at him, and somebody snorted.
"I'll figure it out," Ember said, the idea already growing on him. "Lay in wait and catch it in the act, or set a trap of some sort..."
A low voice spoke up from behind him. "You best be careful, layin' traps for things."
Ember turned and saw Hunter standing near the table, his wide-brimmed hat still drooping from the rain. One eye glared out from under the brim, and he took a long slow swig of beer.
"I'm always careful," Ember said, hefting the fishing spear that was still slung across his shoulders.
"You better be," muttered Hunter, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and taking a deep breath of smoky tavern air. "Those who go laying traps in the woods had better know what they're hunting. There are some things out there that I can't explain, and I wouldn't want to neither."
Ember held the man's stare, downed the rest of his cider, and set the empty mug on the nearby table. "Well, I just might."
None of the other men said a word, and Ember quickly left the tavern with his head full of half-finished plans, still tingling with pleasant warmth from the cider and the fireplace. Hunter's dare had filled him with a stupid sort of courage. Besides - he patted his empty pockets, missing the feel of the coins he had spent - if he didn't find out what was robbing his nets, and soon, he would be going to bed hungry come winter.
Ember tightened his grip on the fishing spear and stepped off the tavern porch into the pouring rain.
Something out there had been feasting on his fish...
And its feast was about to come to a very abrupt end.
"Ember" is a novella I dreamed up several years ago, and although I've been allotting most of my time to other writing projects, I keep coming back to this story. It barely qualifies as a working draft at the moment, and as such will be subject to frequent revisions and updates (I hope), but I do have it completely plotted.
Let me know if you'd like to find out what's been tearing up Ember's fishing nets, and I'll do my best to update!