An Offering of Names
By murinae and aishuu
The sky was just the perfect shade of blue that day, although that would not be the memory he carried away. For a river god, time meant little, because only the here and now mattered in the end.
If anything, time was like the little silver fishes that darted along his banks. Always there. Always teeming, flashing and flickering by. He liked watching them, at times, in their meaningless weaving to and fro, and feel his power over them and all the brief lives that swam or sunk, dived or drowned within his currents. With a flick of his tail, all the fish, large and small, would all lay gasping on his banks. With a smack of his claw, even the mighty armored crayfish would split.
He was watching them when she happened by, and at first she was as inconsequential as the river reeds. She lingered at his banks, then spoke, with a voice dry-as-bones, "Excuse me, if I may. Will a young one like you bend his back for me? I need to cross, but I cannot risk my basket getting wet."
He did not reply, not at first. A god's first language, after all, is spoken in tones of pride.
"If you will, I shall teach you the names of all the fishes in your depths. And the frogs under the stones. And the crayfish in the shadows. I'll teach you all the names in all your length, from the mountain to the sea."
He might have been amused or irritated by her presumption in offering him - him, Nigihayami Kohaku Nushi - a lesson. There was nothing he needed to learn from this woman, this creature of mere flesh and magic.
"A river doesn't bend just because a woman asks it to - and neither does a river god," he replied, his words bubbling up through the waters of his domain and popping in the fresh air above.
The woman pulled her skirt away from the edge with a gnarled hand. "Never doubt the value of any creature, dragon child," she said instead of taking immediate offense.
He sent another wave again -- just enough to drench her slightly, and perhaps sprinkle, just the tiniest bit, that basket that hung like a ripe fruit against her stick-like arms.
And again, the gnarled fingers grasped her flowing skirt. And again, like the wind, she danced so not a drop sprayed. "Dragon child, do you not know when to stay your own course? There are times you must overrun your banks, yes. Times when it is your right to swell with pride, like the burgeoning storm. But there are times to run silent, still and deep. And times when a river must bend.
"I ask you a second time, will you bend your back for me? And for this one small favor, the names of every stone amongst your banks. Every tree that dips its branches along the way. And every animal, be it bird or beast, that drops to its knees, and at your banks finds their fill."
He could not see the value of such a bargain, for she was asking more than a simple favor. To bend his back, he would have to surrender some of his pride, and there was nothing a dragon held more dearly. He already knew most of the names she could offer, and didn't find the exchange compelling. "There is a bridge fifty dragon-lengths hence, made by human hands, which will offer you safe passage. You may cross there," he offered instead.
"It would take me most of the day, and well into the evening, to take such a detour, young river god. My bones are old, I am tired, and I carry a weight that drags down to the depths. I cannot cross any bridge that was made by hands or by ax, of stone or of wood, or of anything that would bear a mortal's weight.
"All I ask is a moment of your time and a small measure of your strength. As of now, you still have plenty to give. I have asked once, twice, now thrice... bend your back for me, and I shall tell you one name."
"One name?!" Now his spirit was truly pricked; and it grew dark and cold within him, coiling. "One name? Is that the price of a dragon's pride, the bargain for a god of the river, the one who carves a path to the sea?"
And as the waves roiled, and as the river weeds thrashed, the old woman just laughed, once, twice, and her voice, like her movements, was as crisp as a leaf on the wind. "One name for your pride is fair trade enough. You could make worse bargains."
"I do not want to make a bargain with you," he replied. "Instead, I will name you for what you are: a witch, one who seeks to entangle those unwary enough to speak with her into a scheme not of their choosing. And I am a god, one who controls these riverbanks. I say you will not cross with any help from me. Now either ford the river yourself, or turn back, because I have had enough of this talk."
Instead of flying into a rage, or calling a curse down upon him, the woman's shoulders slumped as she released a sigh, sounding like an autumn wind. "You are one of the most foolish dragons I have ever met. A witch I may be, but that does not mean I don't have the best of intentions. You must look to look beyond what you see with your eyes, and learn to see with your heart."
A dragon's first language was that of pride.
And his first sight wasn't what he needed to see, but what he wanted to see.
And what he knew was that he was a river, untamed, wild and free, and the fetters of such things as a name or kindness or that which cannot be grasped with claw and scraped smooth by scale -- that was not any that he would have audience with.
He knew this as well: witches could not cross running water. And witches, as she had said, could not cross bridges. And witches were powerful, but only for a time, and he had time enough, more than she.
"Very well," said she. And reached into her basket.
The witch produced a bundle of yarn, freshly woven of a dyed-red wool appearing so soft that it almost made him wish to touch it.
He did not fear whatever magic she planned to work, for he too had untamed power within himself which would serve to prevent her from lashing any spell onto him. A dragon could not be overpowered by one woman alone, not as long as he kept his pride as a shield. But he also had the curiosity of his race, the need to collect knowledge as his prized hoard, and watching would cost him nothing.
She trailed the strand through her fingers. Her face, for a moment, seemed to crease even more, while the thunderous beak of a nose grew sharp. Then she sighed, and her fingers bent once. Twice. And between her palms formed something he recognized from the children of the village. Something that they laughed over, and bent their fingers through, something like a cradle, and something like a game.
All witches mutter spells, but this one seemed a little different from most. There was no thundering from the heavens. The ravens did not descend and call her in names arcane. Not even the tiniest bat, nor any who flew in the night, threw their shadows upon the earth. Not even the smallest crack or the slightest whiff of brimstone.
"Knit one, purl two, knit one, purl two, that's right," she said.
And even a dragon, who had his pride, would admit that while he knew much, he could not know everything.
It was the strangest spell he had ever seen.
Over and under, the fingers looped.
"Once for refusal, and that which names of the life of the river. Twice for denial, and the silent ones that show his course. And three times, for the one name, that will bind his fate. I'm sorry, young dragon, but you wove this on your own."
He watched as the yarn rose and fell along her fingers, tying together in an elaborate knot. He would not demand to know what she was creating - he would not humble himself so. So instead he chose his only other option, and that was to let his anger rise.
"I told you to move along, not dawdle upon my riverbanks, witch," he said, and the water started to creep toward her feet. "Whatever spell you're tying will not latch upon me, for I am a river god."
She ignored his threat, unperturbed at having his rage directed at her. "You are assuming that rivers run forever, young dragon, and that their course will remain unchanged. Time will pass, and there are things that not even your power can control." She tucked the wool back into her basket, before shutting the lid again. "But time will also be there for you, offering a chance to change the weaving before the piece is complete.
"You are a young dragon, and have too much pride for your own good. And because I am a good witch, I will offer you one boon of advice: when you see a human girl in need of your aid, remember that not every good deed needs to be repaid immediately. A creature - and that includes dragons - can never have too many friends."
He rose up with that, and the banks overspilled, and the silver fishes tried in vain to dart to safety, but ended up tumbling, silver bellies glinting like lost coins down a well. The small crayfish were smashed against their rocks. The river weeds were torn from their weak grasp, streaming away like brown banners down the path.
Still the old woman danced out of his reach.
The currents roared echoing his fury, and the stones heaved up from beneath the riverbed, and the banks crumbled under the sudden onslaught of his waters.
But still, the old bones creaked once, the skirt swished, and not a single drop landed.
He twisted and he rolled and roared until the breakers in the ocean and the tops of the mountain resounded. While her powers could not touch him directly, he was infuriated, too, to see that he could not bring her under his sway. She was merely a witch, and he was a river god.
"Now, now. Is that a way for godling to behave? And what of your followers? And what of your sacred ground? And what of yourself, if you destroy your own course?"
It was then he saw, the muddy waste: the nameless little fishes, gone in a flash, the trees bedraggled and the shores collapsed, despoiling his lovely beaches. Then he knew, the worth of the names she had offered to teach.
It told him what he had lost.
"Bend your back, young dragon."
And he heard, far away, down the banks, a young girl's voice cry out.