"The Realm of Rán" by Jereon van Valkenburg

“The Realm of Rán” by Jereon van Valkenburg

During a great famine, Kate Hannal headed to the temple to lay her flowers at the feet of the water goddess. She’d never felt full over the hard years and that now her parents were old it was up to her to make fertile this withered earth.

Once a century, the town’s youngest daughter came and prayed for rain, but lately faith had been lax and the skies dried like deserts. Tonight she had to collect herself and her perform her best as grandma instructed long ago. She had her spell book and —

Kate stopped walking when she saw the imp and set the heavy basket of roses down. The horned pest danced madly round lady Rán’s statue, kicking at the plaster, breaking great chunks free with spite. The statue had been neglected in better times and naughty children had covered her beauty in pen marks.

“Stop that!” Kate heard someone cry out and when the thing swung its pointed tail at her, Kate realized that the fool’s cry had come from her own mouth.

The thing smiled with large yellow teeth and bounded forward. “A girl,” it giggled, holding its bloated belly for fear it might explode. “A girl all by herself — a silly girl, then.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Kate lied. Mother had warned her of monsters. Things that had existed before the time of the Gods, whose gifts and wisdom kept humans safe from such exiled things. Kate thought it a crime of the times that a slip of belief had let an awful thing like this break into so divine a place. “I don’t fear anything that strikes something unable to fight back.”

The imp blinked its yellow eyes and laughed again like Kate had the power to kill him with laughter. “You think your Gods so powerful, yet they can’t fight their own battles — look outside, girl. It’s hard to think the Gods love their children.”

“Lady Rán sleeps,” Kate recited grandma’s opinion. She’d come here to right that. A simple plea and show of devotion would remind lady Rán that believers still existed. She would be pleased and collect storm clouds to feed the crops —

“All the Gods are dead,” the imp cut into Kate’s thoughts, kicking again at the statue which wobbled on poor foundations. An ear rattled loose and smashed to smithereens upon the ground.

Kate tossed her head from side to side, whacking the dead ends of her red hair into her eyes. “You’re lying.”

“No. I’ve seen centuries, but nothing of the Gods’ kindness.” With its ugliness, Kate could well believe it had seen no favours. The imp hopped excitedly from one foot to another as if suddenly hitting upon some great idea. “And I’ve lived so long by eating little girls like you.”

Kate stepped back, but resisted the overwhelming desire to flee — what if a sudden movement caused the thing to chase after her like a wild dog. Her anxiety had drained all energy. She was too weak with hunger and wouldn’t get far. “You won’t to do that,” she said.

The imp licked it’s bloated lips. “Why not?”

Kate blinked. Good question. A hard life had given her street smarts, but mother had no money to send her to school and get a decent education and quick wits. She filled her days working with her hands. Odd jobs at baby sitting for small change or sowing clothes for pregnant neighbours at reasonable rates.

Would the thing believe humans were poisonous to such beasts?

Kate looked at the mangled remains of Lady Rán’s statue, which had given her confidence and courage in difficult times. Grandma said it would always protect her — now it stood, impotent. “Because I’m Lady Rán’s daughter and have great power.”

The imp watched her a moment, then when no punchline came he collapsed, holding his side as if stabbed. His mocking laughter rang out through the temple, echoed back by the ivy-covered, ivory-coloured columns. Despite her fear, Kate felt insulted. Was it so hard to believe she was special?

“I smell human on you girl,” the imp said, wiping his eyes, thanking her for the laugh. “Humans are brittle, breakable things. Your lies do not scare me.”

Kate raised Grandma’s book like a knight behind a shield and shouted, “Djuma kun katami!”

The imp watched her, expression seeming to reflect such thoughts: Mental illness was a terrible thing. Maybe it would be a mercy to end her days. “I’m getting very hungry.”

Kate quickly changed from page seventy-two to page seventy-three. Grandma said Lady Rán’s statue would save all believers. “Djumakun katmo!” The imp was supposed to be blasted by a great wall of water, the weapon of Lady Rán’s glory.

Yet nothing happened and Kate squealed in fright. It was all lies and so unfair. Lady Rán wouldn’t help her. Maybe the Gods really were dead. The imp came at her, snapping its cavity-filled teeth and Kate threw the book in disgust. Let her die for her ignorance, but not eaten by such a diseased-looking demon. Not that!

“Food, food, food,” said the imp, enjoying Kate’s horror.

It ducked as the spell book flew over it’s scaly head and hit the statue’s feet. The blow was a final insult; the crumbling plaster had suffered abuse of all kinds over the years and this lucky blow was enough to widen a crack in it’s ankle. The statue’s wobbling worsened. There was a small scattering of displaced plaster like hail stones against a window and the statue toppled over like a felled log.

The imp hardly had time to scream before the heavy thing collapsed upon him and all at once he disappeared in a cloud of black smoke. Kate coughed, waving the acrid smell away. The stench of burned matches faded. Dumbly, she inspected the damage.

Grandma was right. Lady Rán had saved her. Kate wept with relief, aware that this was the first water to touch this sacred place in one hundred years. She titled her ears like a curious dog when she heard thunder rumble. Children cheered as clouds blotted out the sun and threatened to open.

“Thank you,” Kate said, bowing to the statue’s remains. She would help fix it later. But first, the important stuff. First, she had to be a kid again, devoid of responsibility. First, she had to dance into the rain and watch the flowers grow.

The End

[Matthew Wilson …]

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