Mother of the River

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Mother of the River (Fantasy, Book Award 2023)
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Eleven years after Ianthe's mother vanished, the 17-year-old girl searches for an explanation and discovers a lost legend, family secrets, and the magic of Ireland. But finding the myth may not be enough to mend the past, and finding the truth just may threaten her future.
First 10 Pages

Chapter One
The Stone

It was just a river—water, smooth rocks, a muddy floor—but there was a haunted feeling, an air of fearful nostalgia among the water, rocks, and mud. This place felt heavy, weighted by something grim. Whether that something was long past or yet to come, Ianthe couldn’t be sure, but despite her unease, she returned to this simple river over and over again.
She took her usual seat on the riverbank near her home and beamed at the statue in the middle of the water. The swift blue flowed around the base of a beautiful grey woman holding out her hand and gathering moss at the hem of her stone dress. Ianthe resembled the statue, particularly around the eyes, and did so more and more with each passing day. Tiny peaks and valleys in the dirt marked the places Ianthe had drawn before, and she picked up a stick, continuing to drag it along the bank as she talked to the frozen figure.
“Dad is doing better today,” she said. “I must have said that a thousand times before, but I’m glad it’s still the case. I do catch him wiping a tear every now and again, though I’m not sure why he still tries to hide it from me. He doesn’t need to.”
The thick trees held their branches overhead, thwarting the golden sun’s attempt to warm the forest floor and allowing the cool night air to linger a while longer. Ianthe pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders and continued along her figure eight in the dirt.
“I wish he’d come out here and talk to you. He thinks it’s childish to talk to the statue as though you’ll suddenly appear beyond the trees or something, but I think it’s nice—helpful even—to talk to you. Besides, what’s the point of having a memorial if you never visit it?”
The stick gave way to the mud, and Ianthe tossed it downstream and stared at her mother’s face. The eyes of the statue turned down at the corners and looked almost to be pleading.
Ianthe tried to recall the day the statue had been brought to the river some ten years ago, and she wondered if her father was happy with the final result. Sure, the statue was beautiful and the detail was superb, but Ianthe thought he would have protested such a somber expression carved into the stone—remarkably realistic as it was. But, try as she might, only a vague image of splashing water surfaced in Ianthe’s mind like a muted shadow, leaving more questions in the wake. And Ianthe knew better than to ask her father her questions.
The memory of their last conversation on the subject was more vivid than any memory she had of her mother. She could still picture the scowl on his face, the deepening red in his cheeks, the way he clenched his jaw so tight it seemed to add tension to his neck and shoulders. She could still hear the front door slam, rattling the windows of their modest cottage, after he had stormed out.
So, questioning her father about the statue was an option she didn’t much care for. For all she knew, he had asked the artist to carve an expression into the stone that would mimic what he felt in his heart. Or perhaps it was the reminder of his heartbreak etched into his wife’s face that kept him from visiting the tribute or mentioning her at all. The idea of him spiraling into another deep depression was enough for Ianthe to remove the word “mother” from their conversations all together.
Left with only her assumptions, she figured there must be a reason for the statue’s eyes and the strange placement in the center of the water, and that would have to be enough to ebb her curiosity for now. The croaking of an enormous black raven startled Ianthe out of her silent musing as the bird landed on top of the statue.
“Shew!” Ianthe splashed water at the raven until it flew away, its call echoing above the trees. “Damned bird,” she muttered, shaking her head and turning back to her mother. “Anyway, I’m meeting Fintan soon in the market.”
The name on her lips instantly brightened her demeanor and put a wide smile on her face.
“I wish you had the chance to meet him. Dad thinks he fancies me and… well, I might hope he does.” A soft warmth spread across her cheeks, along with an involuntary giggle. “He’s such a dope, though. The other day we were riding through this tiny path in the forest, and I told him not to go too fast, but he didn’t listen. He hit a low-hanging branch so hard I thought his head might right an’ pop off!”
Her raucous laughter filled the space between the trees, and she held hope for just a moment that she would hear her mother laughing with her. But her smile fell at the sound of the rushing water and nothing more. Grasping for any solid memory, Ianthe concentrated on the stone face and tried to recall the sound of her mother's laugh, but time had faded the once-bright sound. As the years passed, her imagination had replaced what she could not remember, and over time, truth and make-believe melded into one complete but inaccurate picture.
“I should get going,” she said, washing her hands in the river. “Fintan will be waiting for me and I still need to saddle up Ailin. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum. Love you.”

The ride into town was quicker than it used to be with the new road, which practically ran right through Ianthe’s living room. The shorter travel time and Ianthe’s perpetual tardiness was a nice balance, and Ianthe had been exactly on time ever since the road was finished. She tied her stallion to the post at the entrance of the bustling market alley near the wooden town sign—a point of controversy three towns wide.
Ghaoth Anoir Killarney
East Wind Killarney
Est. Some Time Ago
At the bottom corner of the sign, someone had carved est. 721, but that had since been crossed out and the year 713 was added, crossed out, and replaced again with 698.
The town of East Wind Killarney, small as it was, had stirred up the tempers of those in the surrounding towns. Residents of Killarney, a town just east of East Wind, argued over the town name, insisting that the name Killarney should belong solely to Killarney itself. Even if they had wanted to share, those of Killarney protested that East Wind should actually be called West Wind due to the fact that if the wind blew from East Wind into Killarney, it would be coming from the west, not the east.
On the other side of East Wind sat a town old as dirt and proud of their history, but East Wind Killarney had inspired a second topic of controversy revolving around who was founded first. Every few years a new piece of evidence was presented by one town or the other hoping to claim the title for oldest of the two—neverminding the fact that neither town would be named oldest in the country or even the southern half.
Unfortunately for the surrounding towns, East Wind Killarney was stubborn to a fault and more likely to dig in their heels once they realized how much it bothered a person. They would never change their name but would forever change their date of establishment.
Ianthe made her way to the weaponry shop and shoved the crooked door open, scraping against the ground. Her father was busy with a customer, so she hopped up onto the front desk and wound a few leather cords while she waited. The rickety walls and dusty floors of the shop only made the shine of metal around the room more profound. Every blade looked as though it could cut through bone like sweet cream, and every handle was perfectly crafted as though the Protectors of Ireland—the Gods themselves—had laid a blessing over each one. No other shop in the world had weapons like these—East Wind Killarney’s best kept secret.
“Thank you, Evander,” the customer said, beaming at his purchase.
“My pleasure!” Evander yanked the door open, refining the half-moon scuff on the floor, and he held it open for the man. “Have a wonderful day,” he said, waving him out the door, then turned to his daughter. “Ianthe, darlin’. Looking for Fintan?”
He reached into his apron pocket for the money from his last few sales and dropped it into the money box, then took the now-organized leather cords from Ianthe and arranged them in a wooden box on the shelf below the desk.
“Yes,” Ianthe said. “I didn’t see him outside.”
“I stopped by their home this mornin’ and Fintan was still asleep. Seán didn’t quite look awake either, so I told him I’d run the shop today. I’m sure Fintan will be along soon enough though.”
“Okay,” she said as she slid off the desk. “If he comes by here, could you tell him to meet me?”
She gripped the strap of her satchel over her chest and rushed toward the door, her heart speeding up as she neared the time spent with her best friend.
“Wha— Ianthe,” Evander called after her. “Wait a minute, darlin’!”
Ianthe stopped short and spun back around.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, and with a quick kiss on his cheek, she turned for the door once again.
“Ianthe,” he tried again, and she froze, slowly looking over her shoulder.
“Yes, Dad?” she said, anxiously tapping her fingers at her side.
“Good morning,” he said with an exaggerated shake of his head. “You just got here. What, you can’t spare even a second for your own dad?”
“No— I mean, yes, of course I can.” She faced him but took half a step backwards toward the door. “Good morning. How have you been? How’d you sleep? How was breakfast?”
She rushed her questions, taking another half-step back, and Evander rolled his eyes.
“Breakfast was large. Say hello to Fintan for me.”
Her shoulders raised toward her ears as her cheeks flushed and a smile lit up her face.
“Thank you, Dad! Love you, Dad!”
She hurried outside to a stand with berries and honey and bought enough for her and Fintan, just in time before it all sold out. Making her way out of the crowd, she headed for higher ground when she was pelted in the back of the head with something large and soft.
“Hey,” she said, spinning around.
There, standing a few paces away, was Fintan. He was a beautiful boy with a strong jaw and solid arms but a soft smile and easy eyes, though the deep blue color was often hidden by his unkempt brown hair. He stood with his hands behind him and a smirk on his face, and on the ground just behind Ianthe was a loaf of bread. She pointed to the loaf and raised her brow at Fintan.
“A loaf. That’s a whole loaf of bread,” she told him as if he had no idea what he had thrown, and his smile widened until it couldn’t widen anymore. “You threw a whole loaf of bread at me?”
Her own grin was peeking through now, despite her efforts to hide it.
“I threw a whole loaf of bread at you,” he said, very matter-of-factly.
He walked up to her, picked up the bread, and took a bite out of it, still grinning like a goon. She yanked it out of his grip and hit him with it.
“So, what kept you? My dad said you were still asleep when he came by this morning.”
“My da and I were up kind of late last night visiting my mum. She says hello, by the way,” he said, taking the bread back.
They walked behind the shops to a small stone wall and hopped up. Fintan broke the bread in half while Ianthe took the berries and honey out of her bag.
“Explain to me again why she doesn’t live with you?”
He smiled and stared down at his food.
“I’ve told you before. She doesn’t like the air here.”
“Yes, you have told me that before, and I don’t accept it as a real reason for leaving a son and husband behind.” She took a bite and continued with a full mouth. “I mean, if she really refuses to live here, why don’t you both go live with her? Not that I’m allowing you to ever leave here.”
“Well, wouldn’t that be silly?” he said. “We’d never live there.”
Ianthe rolled her eyes and Fintan laughed at her frustration.
“I don’t understand why you don’t just explain this to me.”
“Okay, how about this?” he said, clapping breadcrumbs off his hands and turning toward Ianthe. “I’ll tell you everything about my mum as soon as you tell me everything about yours.”
She opened her mouth to reply but came up short. Fintan turned back to his bread and took a bite.
“That’s what I thought.”
As much as Ianthe wanted to tell Fintan about her mother, she didn’t even know what she would say. The small glimpses of the past through the eyes of her six-year-old self left more questions than answers, and between her own questions, there were whispers.
Their town was small, so it was no surprise that people would have their own theories about what had happened that day. And Ianthe had heard every insane rumor from actual monsters, faeries, and curses, all the way to the idea that her father, Evander, could somehow be responsible. She could only imagine how hard it all must have been on her dad without all the whispers, but then to add the insinuation that he could be capable of hurting his wife? Well, it was no wonder he never spoke of the past, and Ianthe didn’t have the courage to permit anyone else to speculate, even someone as kind as Fintan.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him eat his bread, the muscles in his jaw clenching and releasing, and she couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face or the warm sensation flooding her cheeks. He grabbed the last two berries and held them out to her. She shook her head and he popped them both in his mouth with a smile. Forgetting subtlety, she stared at the side of his face and wondered what was going through his head. In many ways, Fintan was still a mystery. Why didn’t he want to talk about his mother? Was he ashamed of her? Or was he scared, like she was, of rumors overshadowing the truth? He looked back at her and furrowed his brow.
“Nothing,” she said, looking away and brushing breadcrumbs off her lap. “Ready?”
She slid off the ledge and turned to collect her bag, running into Fintan as he stood up.
“Oops, sorry.”
They both side-stepped in the same direction a couple of times before Fintan gripped her shoulders and spun around, swapping places with her. Ianthe’s cheeks flushed, and the butterflies in her stomach fluttered in excitement. Fintan chuckled and dipped his head down, still holding her shoulders, and tried to interrupt her gaze.
“You okay, Ianthe?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” she said, finally reaching her bag. “You? Okay, we should go.”
Without waiting for his reply, she started back toward the ever-growing market crowd, hiding her undoubtedly reddening cheeks.
They walked around the shops with no real plan. Fintan bartered with merchants for sport, then refused to follow through with any purchases until he spotted two matching ceramic mugs for him and his father. After a bit of back and forth, he convinced the owner to lower the price by 25%, then paid the full price anyway, provoking a slew of colorful words from the man behind the stand.
As he waited for his goods to be wrapped up, the murmuring crowd and shuffling feet caught Ianthe’s attention. The sea of people parted, making way for an enormous man. He must have been twice the size of any other person in town and nearly as wide as he was tall. With hands as large as Ianthe’s entire torso and a neck like a tree stump, there was no question about it; he had to be a Giant’s Man.
It was rumored that actual giants recruited the largest and most intimidating humans to do their in-town bidding, but if one believed in that nonsense they might also believe that the Gods were what kept the land ripe and the rivers flowing. A damned gobdaw, as Evander would call them—a gullible dope. Still, most of the town believed the Giant’s Men to simply be petty thieves using the fear of giants as an excuse to steal trinkets and change purses.
The seven-foot-tall beast of a man walked past the cart of mugs, a heavy thump with every step, and he eyed Fintan with an ominous grin. The sunlight bounced off a brilliant stone hanging from Fintan’s neck as he leaned on his elbow on the cart counter.
Despite the modest life he lived with his father, he wore a deep blue and green stone wrapped in silver wire around his neck, which looked like it could be worth a small fortune. Ianthe could have sworn she saw it glowing about a year ago, but Fintan insisted she imagined it.
Ianthe nudged him and signaled to the Giant’s Man and then to his necklace. He hid the stone inside his shirt and grimaced, then thanked the merchant for the mugs and secured them in the satchel around his shoulder.
Ianthe and Fintan bounced off in the opposite direction of the Giant’s Man until they reached the end of the market alley, dodging shoppers the entire way. With no choice but to turn around, they could only hope that the Giant’s Man had either left the market or forgotten about the stone that had caught his eye as they made their way back to the horses tied by the only road out of town.