5 min read

Chapter 6: The Stream

Saffron takes a long walk in a cold stream
A background image of a stream through the woods is overlaid with the text "Saffron and Bear" and "Chapter 6: The Stream"

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On the summer solstice, Saffron waded the length of the stream from its source in the foothills until it joined up to the river, just as she had done every year since she moved to town. She went barefoot although the water was still cold, her feet skidding on the slippery rocks beneath the surface. It was a long walk; it would be dark by the time she reached the river and darker still by the time she walked back home. But it was important.

It was a personal ritual, with no real power to it except the significance she’d built up for it in her own mind. Even that held a type of power, though, and she knew she could never skip a year.

She started early, rising with the sun and leaving home shortly after, a sleepy Bear draped around her neck in protest. He resented being roused from his slumber nestled between her feet in the bed, but not so much that he didn’t want to come with her.

The sun shone between the trunks of the trees to her left, casting slanting shadows across the stream at its source, where she sat on its banks to remove her shoes. She touched one toe to the water. It was icy cold, but would warm up as the day went on.

There was no easing into it. She plunged both feet into the stream, gave herself a moment to acclimatize, and stood. Bear meowed and shifted his weight on her shoulders as she steadied herself and started to walk.

She had walked the stream the first time as a way to familiarize herself with her territory. She had spent a lot of time walking back then, tramping through the forests and meadows and town, learning every leaf and twig and creature. Cataloguing her responsibilities and resources. The stream had been no different, but she’d put it off until last and then some. Water was her weakest element. She didn’t fear it, but she wasn’t comfortable with it either.

Walking the stream had given her a sense of power. She may not control the water, but at least she could understand it. So she continued the custom, not wanting to lose the knowledge, not wanting to let the stream slip out of her grasp. It was her territory, and she couldn’t protect what she didn’t know.

By noon, the sun had risen over the tops of the trees and the water around her feet had warmed a little. Bear had finally had his fill of rest and now picked his way along the bank, sometimes racing ahead to chase a bug or falling behind to investigate a scent, but never straying too far from her side.

They came to a small clearing where the sun spilled down and the stream widened. They paused for lunch, Saffron perched on the bank with her feet still in the water. She ate the food she’d packed—a cold boiled egg with greens and sprouts from her garden—and soaked up as much warmth as she could. Bear curled up against her, sneaking in a nap before they set out again.

While she ate, she noticed a few small fish in the water, darting in and out between the rocks. She watched them for a few moments until one approached the edge of the stream, seeming to look right at her.

Don’t, she begged silently, please don’t. But the fish opened its mouth and spoke anyway.

“Go to the centre. The Queen is waiting. The Queen is watching.”

Saffron sighed as the fish wriggled back to its hiding place. This had been happening periodically since her encounter with the Queen of the Forest. The Queen’s messengers seemed to be everywhere these days. But the centre of the wood was outside her territory. It wasn’t her responsibility and she wasn’t a subject of the queen. She tended well to her own wards and no one could ask more of her than that.

Rattled by the message, Saffron continued her journey, trying to shake off a sense of foreboding and focus on the journey. There was no sense in walking the stream if she wasn’t paying attention and learning its ways.

As she distanced herself from the clearing, the fish’s words fell away, her mood lightened by the sun and Bear’s company.

Midafternoon, she came to the deepest and fastest part of the stream and hiked her dress up as the water rose to her knees. This was the most treacherous part, but if she could make it through, she knew the rest of the journey would be easier. She picked her way along, one slow step at a time, Bear meowing his encouragement from the shore.

She came around a bend and saw a figure on the bank ahead, fishing from the edge of the stream. He lifted a hand to shade his eyes and peered at her.

“Is that Saffron I see?”

“Yes! Hello, Mister Payton!” she called back.

“What on earth are you doing? The water is freezing.”

“It’s not so bad in the shallower parts, though it is cold here,” she conceded. “I’m laying some magical protections.” Not entirely true, but she couldn’t explain why else she was there. He just nodded, though. Saffron had proved herself enough to the townsfolk over the years that they didn’t question her ways. “How’s the fishing?”

“Not good, Saffron, not good. They aren’t biting today.”

At least they’re not talking to you, she felt like saying. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe you’ll have better luck once I’ve moved on.”

“Don’t rush on my account.”

“I’m going all the way to the river, so I’d better press on.”

His eyes widened, but all he said was, “Good luck, then. Drop by for tea sometime soon.”

“I will!” She picked her way past him, careful to steer clear of her fishing line.

Before long, the sun started to set and the water cooled off again. Saffron hurried her pace as much as she dared. She didn’t pause for dinner, choosing to eat as she walked to save time.

Her journey was interrupted only once more, when Bear stopped and meowed repeatedly to draw her attention to something on the bank.

“What is it, boy?” She bent down to see what he was looking at.

There was a mark in the soft mud at the edge of the water. A paw print. A very big paw print with very big claws. Not an animal that Saffron knew. She was struck with a memory of claw marks on a crow’s dark wing, bigger than she could account for.

What was lurking in her woods?

Saffron’s resolve to learn the stream and know the details of her territory was only strengthened. And then she was going to start doing more thorough sweeps of the woods. Something was out there, and she wanted to know what.

It was very late by the time she came to the river, and she was grateful for the nearly full moon shining bright above. She stood at the end of the stream, grounding herself in the water, breathing in its sensations for one long last moment, before she finally stepped out onto the bank.

Bear immediately twined himself around her legs as she dried her feet on a spare cloth she’d tucked into her bag that morning. She rubbed as much feeling into them as she could before finally putting her socks and shoes back on. She lifted a tired cat onto her shoulders, as grateful for his warmth as he was for the lift, and wearily turned her steps back across solid land toward her cottage.

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Katie Conrad is a speculative fiction writer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, and literary stories. You can find her on twitter or instagram.