I stood on the northern banks of the Lauzon, watching the leaders of the caravan board the first ferry that would take us across the mile-wide river. Aquitani was a land of rivers, and this was its largest. Traveling north to the nearest bridge would have added days to the trip; it only took two to cross by boat. The rest was welcome. We had been traveling for three weeks and needed it as badly as the oxen.
Emile was in the field outside of the wagon circle, practicing with the oaken arming sword that Seb had carved for her. Her shadow was long in the morning sun. She counted her steps like a dancer as she worked through the three stances and eight basic blocks. Emile was getting good, quickly. Even though she was only fifteen, she had been working the forge with her father for years. She had strength to spare, and her brush with death had made her serious about learning. Teaching her was going to be interesting.
Sebastian was sitting on the oxcart, watching over our animals while they grazed. He wasn’t wearing his armor. Neither was I. We gave it up about a week ago, confident Erland wasn’t following us. He jumped down to stand next to me. “She’s so small. Is there any point to teaching her?”
I shook my head, knowing he meant well. “I’m not training her for the battlefield, but she will be dangerous. Trust me.”
“She was sleep-talking again last night. I heard her laughing and singing, but there was no one else in there.” Seb shrugged, thoughtfully. “What are we going to do with her?”
We needed some mystical advice, and I knew where to get it. “There’s an enchanted lake not far from here. The nymph might be able to help. We could make it back before dark. Mind staying with the animals?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“The nymph is dangerous, but I’ve met her before. She won’t hurt me.” I was pretty sure. Half sure. It probably wouldn’t hurt to bring a gift.
“Or Emile?” he asked.
“Or Emile.” I said. “But I don’t think you’ll like her.” Or you’ll like her too much.
“No way. We have friends here. They can watch our cart,” said Seb. “I wouldn’t miss a magical lake with a dangerous nymph for anything.”
I don’t think danger is in Seb’s blood, but it wasn’t in his nature to let us go without him. There was no point in arguing with his false bravado. I slapped his shoulder and went back to the cart to find my breastplate.
We were on a dirt trail that cut between the farms and rocky hills towards the Forest of Ripont. A few ravens perched on the trees’ bare limbs. The count that ruled Ripont considered it his personal forest and didn’t allow anyone to hunt within. I always suspected it had something to do with the nymph, but who knows. I liked Ripont and wished we had time to visit, but the caravan would leave soon, and it was a few miles out of our way.
The people of Ripont looked a little more civilized than we did up north. Men wore wool tunics. Women dressed in gowns or trousers of the same material. Both wore beautiful sheepskin cloaks. Emile was walking a little in front of us, resting her wooden sword on her shoulder. She was dressed in furs and had her black hair in braids. I laughed to myself at how savage she looked. I was glad Emile embraced the differences and didn’t shy away from who she was.
She slowed down until she was walking between me and Seb, tapping her sword on her shoulder. The jade talisman hung from the silver chain on her neck. “What’s the nymph like?” she asked.
“Beautiful.” Typical understatement. “And hot-tempered. She isn’t really a woman. Nymphs are spirits, like fairies or angels. They can look however they want.”
“When I was little, I used to see fairies. My parents thought I was pretending, but I wasn’t.” She looked at the jade. “I’d forgotten about it. I must have been really little.”
“Is that who you’ve been talking to in your tent?” asked Seb.
Emile blushed. “Yeah.”
Seb whistled, long and slow.
“So, what do they want?” I asked.
“Nothing!” She had a bounce in her step. “They just like me.”
Seb and I exchanged glances. I grinned to show him I wasn’t worried. He shrugged as if to say he didn’t care. In truth, I was a little worried. Spirits could take any form and there were all kinds of invisible predators and creatures that stepped into and out of our world like turtles coming and going from a pond.
It bothered me how well Emile seemed to be taking her situation. I thought leaving home on the run would upset her, and it had, but it seemed like she was over it. She had hardly mentioned going home. I touched her shoulder to get her attention. “You seem like you’re enjoying our trip.”
“I never thought I would go anywhere, but I knew I was different. It makes sense to leave. Maybe I’m glad this happened.” She turned her head quickly between us. “Not about my father getting hurt, but he’s okay.”
“How do you know that?” asked Seb.
Emile smiled. “I visit them sometimes.”
We exchanged glances again.
“Huh,” said Seb.
We still had a couple hours of daylight when we reached the lake. It was like an oasis; the willow trees that surrounded it still had most of their leaves. They seemed to bend so the sun’s rays could find the water. The sun reflected off its surface so brightly I had to squint.
“Hello.” I walked to the shore. “We come bearing gifts.”
There was a ripple out where the water darkened. Her head rose above the surface slowly. Long brown hair floated around her. She brushed it from her face with a slender limb that was too long for her frame, and rose a little higher so that her breasts were just below the surface. “Show me,” she said in a singsong voice.
Emile stepped to the edge, holding the wicker basket close to her chest. Her meekness and wonder were perfect – it’s the kind of respect spirits crave. She knelt and placed the basket on the lake. It was full of fruit and flowers, along with a waterhorse Seb had carved on the road. Knowing we were coming here, he had smoothed its limbs and given it gills. The waterhorse was a symbol of fortune.
The basket quickly floated to the nymph, carried on the back of a turtle. She took the figurine and lovingly stroked it. Strange how much spirits liked things made by human hands. Her eyes met Seb’s. I saw his mouth go slack as she lifted higher in the water and beckoned him. She sang beautifully, music without words, as Sebastian stepped into the lake. I could feel the song’s pull, but it wasn’t meant for me, so I was able to resist.
I grabbed Seb by the shoulders and tried to slow him down. He swung his arm into my chest and shoved me back with unnatural strength. My feet lifted off the ground and I tumbled through the air. A willow tree broke my fall. I had no choice but to sit for a moment to catch my breath. Seb’s vacant eyes were locked on the woman in the water. Emile was backing up, calling his name.
The nymph jerked her gaze towards Emile; her face was flushed with rage. She disappeared into the water and rose out of the shallows near her with impossible speed. I lunged, trying to put myself between them, but I was too far away.
“Emile!” I cried.
“He’s mine! He’ll never be yours again!” The nymph was screaming in her face.
Emile was shaking, terrified. I was scared for her.
White light burst from the jade talisman that hung around her neck. Emile was floating – her toes were inches above the ground. She arched back and looked into the sky as the light became brighter and brighter.
The nymph hissed like a cat and changed. She transformed into a squid – shimmering, purple and large enough to choke us all. Taking her new form was a sign of weakness; Emile’s magic scared her. She scrambled back into deep water, repelled by the blinding energy. The light faded and Emile was standing on the ground with a look of calm resolve in her eyes.
“Nope. Nope. Nope.” Sebastian raced out of the lake, running knee to chest as he climbed onto the shore. He was free of the nymph’s spell.
“She’s not your type?” I said, laughing. I ran to Emile and stood next to her. “Hey?” I asked her everything at once.
“The lake is magical,” she said. “It’s reflecting other places.”
I took her hand, pulled her back from the water. “It could be another illusion. Let’s get out of here.”
She pulled away. “No, it’s not.” Emile knelt by the water and stared at her reflection.
The nymph spoke in angry, musical tones. “Enough! The man is mine and the lake is mine.” Her tentacles thrashed in the air.
Seb was slack-jawed and pale, white-knuckling his splitting axe. I guess I wasn’t the only one disgusted. I drew my sword, not knowing what we were going to do.
Emile seemed unconcerned with the nymph, fascinated with whatever she saw reflected in the lake. I don’t think she noticed what was moving beneath the surface.
I stood there, dumbly, watching the scene unfold. Men rose from the water and hobbled towards us. I assume they were men, since the nymph drowned them. There were ten of them. Each was in a worse state of decay than the last. Some bloated and rotten while others reduced to their skeletons. Loose bits of clothing and armor hung from the corpses. At least they weren’t armed.
“What do we do?” asked Seb.
I gave him a steely gaze and smiled. “Fight. Let’s buy Emile some time so she can finish whatever she’s doing.”
“Any tips?” asked Seb as the undead drew closer to her.
“Don’t let them touch you.” I raised my saber and lunged at the closest one. His rotten face was pockmarked with fish bites. I dashed my sword across his neck and thigh. My saber bounced off his femur, dropping him to the ground. The shambler was slow, hence the name; they’re only dangerous in large numbers. The key to handling the undead is smashing them before they surround you.
I guess that would have been better advice for Seb. I’ll remember it for next time.
Another came at me from behind the first. He was nothing but bones. I hoped the creature was as weak as he looked and struck his clavicle. The bone broke, along with several of his ribs with the follow-through. I hadn’t expected to make it that far, but was happy to see him fall.
Somehow, breaking the body breaks the spell.
Seb was swinging with both hands. He lunged between the undead, hitting them in the head with his axe. Forehand. Backhand. He was a big man and had made short work of three of them when a fourth tripped forward, accidentally avoiding his blade; the zombie grabbed his clothing and opened its mouth wide.
Seb put the handle of the axe against its neck and held his snapping jaw at bay. “Help!” he yelled.
I cut one of his hands off with my saber. Seb broke his other grip and shoved him back. We cut the shambler down together.
There were still four more nearing the shore. I looked at Emile. “Do you have any more of that white light?” She didn’t seem to hear me.
Seb placed his boot against the chest of the next one out of the lake and shoved him back in. I cut another above the knee. The flesh fell off with the swing, turning the water black. I gagged at the sight of it but kept swinging.
The nymph’s voice rose high in the air. Her body shook and strange creatures moved below the surface.
Emile jumped back from the water, suddenly wide eyed. “Okay, sorry! Let’s go!” She turned and ran from the lake.
Seb and I chased after her, leaving the undead behind. The nymph screamed curses at us. “May your horns shrivel and your mothers rise in their graves! May your flesh betray you and your hopes wither.”
“Gods,” said Seb.
I don’t know why, but I felt confident it was a helpless rage. It was hard not to laugh, but I tried. “I’ll let you know if mine falls off.”
We ran until we couldn’t see the willows anymore.
We were back at our camp inside the wagon circle, sitting by our small fire and sipping liquor. The camp was smaller now. About half of the thirty wagons had made it to the other side of the Lauzon. With the night, the ferry captain had tied off his boat and had gone to sleep, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. It was getting colder at night. I wished we had gotten a hotel in Ripont.
“So are you going to keep us guessing all night?” asked Seb. “What did you see in the lake?”
Emile took a sip from my flask and passed it back. She was flushed. The dreamy look in her eyes told me she had had enough. She yawned and watched the fire dance before answering. “I saw myself, older, in an ivory tower. I was wearing a red dress and had a raven sitting on my shoulder. Ever finger had a ring with a different precious stone. I looked powerful. I felt powerful.”
“What do you think?” she asked, looking at me.
“An ivory tower? The university I went to in Nantes fit that description. Some of the old professors dabble in magic.”
Emile stood up. “That’s it!” She grabbed me by the hands and pulled me up. “That’s where I’m supposed to go! You have to take me there.”
“Alright,” I said. “After we hit the peninsula market, we’ll take you to Nantes.”