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Fantasy Sad

The dirt path leading to their small cottage was well-traveled. Aiden limped to the door, his thigh throbbing from an old injury. Most of the villagers from nearby townships would make the trek to their tiny home when they needed herbs, or for Cara’s help, to deliver a baby. His wife was a skilled healer. He should know, as this is how they met.

Aiden had been a soldier in another life and almost lost his leg. Were it not for Cara, he would have. But his leg wasn’t the only thing Cara had saved. She had taken a broken, bitter man and taught him to love again.

He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath of courage as he hugged his satchel to his chest. He had failed to save their daughter.  

“Hello, my light,” he whispered.

“Welcome home, my love,” she returned without looking up.

Cara was on the bed next to their daughter, carefully dabbing Kyla’s tiny face with a cool rag. He had been gone three days and three nights, searching for a cure for the child’s ailment. His daughter’s breath was shallow and uneven. It wouldn’t be long now. Cara pulled the girl’s head onto her lap.

“Did you find anything?” She asked, her dull eyes picking up the reflection of the light from the hearth.

“Nothing,” he whispered, unshed tears pooling.

“Was there no wizard that could remove this blasted curse?” Cara cried.

He joined his wife and child on the bed and squeezed his eyes shut. He needed to be strong for both of them.  

Aiden exhaled and placed his leather satchel on the table, then gently stroked his daughter’s cheek. “How is she doing?” 

His wife gazed into his eyes and he could see the red that lined her own. “She was awake briefly this morning.” Cara sniffled a little and tried to hide her pain. But it was there. A gaping wound that wouldn’t close. 

Three perfect years they had lived in happiness. Their belongings were sparse, but they had enough. Everything was okay as long as they had each other. As a soldier and a healer, Aiden and Cara had both faced death many times, but never their own flesh and blood.

The small cottage had one tiny bedroom, with a trundle bed for their daughter, and a hearth for Cara to brew her tinctures in. 

Cara gently lay the child back onto the bed and turned to her husband, leaning in as he wrapped his muscular arms around her. 

“Did you at least find the woman that placed the curse?” she asked.

“No.” Aiden pressed his lips together into a thin line, barely containing the grief and anger that lived just below the surface. “I couldn’t find the woman.”

He rocked his wife gently in his arms. “I would slay a thousand dragons and die a hundred deaths if it would save our sweet Kyla.”

“Her poor little body won’t hold on much longer.” His wife’s shoulders shook in his embrace, and silent tears streamed down her face.

One day, before their daughter fell ill, a strange woman had come to our home, in hopes a healer could save an ailing father. Unfortunately, the man was beyond all hope. When Cara informed her of this, the woman wouldn’t hear it. So, Cara brewed the man a tea that would ease his pain. 

When death came to take him away, the woman tried to fight it off. But everyone knows that is a battle you cannot win. And so, as death carried the father on the winds to the world beyond. The woman’s anger spilled into their lives and she spat, “A curse on you, that someone dear may be a load for four before the year is out.”

Cara had just laughed it off. Saying curses and hexes were rubbish. But, when their daughter became ill, they both wondered about the extent of that woman’s powers. 

At first, it seemed like just a normal sickness with a few coughs and a fever. But as time wore on, it got worse. None of the healer’s remedies would help, and she was the best for miles. 

Aiden had searched the surrounding villages, trying to find this woman to remove the curse. But it was as though she never existed.

“I heard a tale while I traveled.” Aiden released his wife and leaned against the wattle wall. “Of a magical fish, in the River Boyne.”

“A magic fish!” Cara’s eyes flashed with anger. “Our daughter is dying, and you are listening to stories?”

“It’s a fish that contains all the knowledge in the world. If I catch it and eat it, this wisdom will be mine, and perhaps I will have an answer.” Aiden’s voice wavered. “I don’t know what else to do.” 

“I’m sorry, my love,” Cara replied, her shoulders sagging in defeat. “That was uncalled for.”

He cupped her cheeks in his hands and planted a tender kiss on her forehead. “No my light, you are right, it was a foolish idea.”

Aiden stroked his wife’s auburn hair, and she wrapped her arms around their child. Cara’s eyelids were heavy, and Aiden wondered if she had slept at all while he had been gone. 

“I just need a moment’s rest, and we will figure something out,” Cara mumbled before drifting into a fitful sleep.

A gust of cold air blew open the door, and on the stoop stood an old man. He wore a cloak of black, and his long beard was gnarled and grey. His voice was cold and empty when he finally spoke. “I have come for the child.”

Aiden stood tall and drew a sword that was leaning against the wall, for he had once been a warrior and could use the weapon in his sleep. He stood between the old man and his family, knowing full well his efforts would be fruitless.

“You can’t have her!”

The old man laughed a callus cackle. The next moment, he was behind Aiden, reaching his bony hand for the child.

“NO!” Aiden yelled, dropping the sword and placing himself between his daughter and Death. 

Death eyed him, and then turned his gaze to the girl, raising a grizzled eyebrow. 

“Will you take me instead?” Aiden asked.

There was no reply.

Time stood still, and Aiden reached a hand toward the man, pleading. He knew he should consult with his wife before offering his life, but Kyla was all that mattered. It was good that Cara slept through this. She would forgive him someday.

“I cannot trade one life for another. That is against the rules.” A grey mist coalesced around Kyla as the old man hovered over her, but Death hesitated and turned to Aiden imploringly. “Perhaps I can offer you something else.”

Aiden eyed death wearily and gave a quick nod. “I’m listening.”

“The fish. The Salmon of Knowledge.” The old man moved in a flash and was now next to Aiden. “I can delay her death, a year and a day. If you catch me the salmon, then cook it and prepare it for me to eat.”

“I will do this,” Aiden replied, with no hesitation. 

“Wait,” the old man chuckled. It was a dark and empty thing. “There is more. Do not eat of the flesh lest you gain the knowledge for yourself. Also, you will tell no one of your tasks, and you must leave before your family wakes.”

 “But, they will be worried,” Aiden stated, “can I at least leave a note.”

Death just shook his head.

Aiden grabbed his discarded satchel and slung it over his shoulder, then turned to the old man. “How do I find you when the task is complete?” 

The old man reached into his black cloak and pulled out a small tin whistle. He put the instrument to his lips and played. A mournful melody filled the room, and Aiden felt a lump forming in his throat. As the dam broke, and the tears that had been held back finally flowed. Death placed the whistle in Aiden’s hand. 

“Play me a tune on this, and I will come.”

Aiden squeezed his eyes shut, wiped his face, then turned to death, questions in his eyes. But before he could ask anything else, a light flared brightly, and the old man was gone.

A chill moved through him as he shoved the whistle into his satchel and threw a few other supplies into the pack. When a brief movement caught his eye, he paused. Kyla was stirring!

He made his way towards the bed and placed his hand on her forehead. For the first time in a week, it was cool to the touch. Her eyelids fluttered, and beautiful green eyes opened. Aiden swallowed and darted to the door before his daughter heard him. 

“Hello?” he could hear a voice from inside calling out.

“Kyla!” his wife’s voice replied.

With that, he turned his back on his home and made his way out of town. A new hope was rising within him. Maybe not all was lost. He would find this fish, and all would be right in the world.

The River Boyne was lush, and the currents were calm. Aiden had hoped he would arrive, catch the fish, and be home in time for dinner. But significant tasks are never this simple, and this one was no different. 

He fashioned a small fishing rod from a nearby branch, trimming away the leaves and nubs with his small hunting knife. There was a slight breeze in the air as he closed his eyes. Letting the warm bath of sunlight shine down on him. It brought a peace he had not felt since Kyla had become sick, and he welcomed the moment while waiting for a bite.

That day, Aiden caught so many fish from the river. He was blessed with more trout than he could eat. However, not one of them was the fish he needed. He was positive he would know when he caught this magical creature. 

So intent he was on his task that he missed the approach of a beautiful woman.

“Ahem,” she coughed quietly.

Nearly jumping out of his boots, Aiden propped his line on a rock, then faced her. She was like no one he had ever seen before. Tall and lithe, with long black hair trailing down her back, she smiled and inclined her head. Her gossamer dress was embroidered with ivory pearls and seemed to move with a mind of its own, as she shifted her weight.

“You seek the Salmon of Knowledge,” she stated, her voice like the lilt of a flute.

Aiden found it impossible to deny this face and just nodded.

She looked sadly at his affirmation and gazed out over the serene waters. “Go home, to your wife. Enjoy the time you have left with your child. This knowledge was not meant for you or anyone.”

“I will not let my daughter die if I can prevent it.” Aiden steeled his nerves and faced the woman. “Would you?”

Her face clouded, before becoming serene once again. “Go home. I will not offer you this choice a third time.”

Aiden turned away and cast his line in defiance. When he turned back, the woman was nowhere to be seen.

Hours turned into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months. Aiden no longer counted the time as it passed. His beard had grown long, and his body was lean. He would wake each morning, eat a small meal of fish and greens, then continue his quest for the fish. 

One day, as the sun set, a young boy happened upon him. He dragged a small coracle fashioned with animal skins and tar behind him. Aiden smiled at the young man, thinking of the day he would see his Cara again.

“This looks like a fruitful place to fish.” The boy said, eyeing the basket of trout next to Aiden. “Mind if I share it?”

“Of course not. Good luck with your haul.” Aiden replied, then hesitated before continuing, “I am hoping for a salmon. If you catch one, I will trade this entire basket for one fish.”

“You got it, sir,” the boy’s eyes grew wide as they passed over the basket. “Those trout could feed my family for a week!”

With that, he pushed his vessel into the river. It was not long before the boy returned with the largest salmon Aiden had ever seen. Its scales flashed silver, and Aiden knew at once this was the fish he needed.

The boy watched curiously as the older man prepared the fire to roast the salmon. 

“If you wish to help, you can grab me some branches soaking down there in the river.” He gestured to the spot.

“Sure thing!” The boy grinned back at him, “You are giving me so much food, how can I say no!” With that, he bounded down to the shore and brought back the sticks.

Aiden crafted a spit and set the salmon over the flames to roast. His stomach growled as the savory aroma permeated the air. Reaching into his worn satchel, he retrieved the instrument Death had given him and placed it on his parched lips. Just as he played, the support of the spit gave way, and the fish slid into the fire.

“No!” Aiden shouted, his heart all in knots.

But the boy was fast, catching the meal and fixing the support in one swift motion. 

“Ouch!” the boy cried out, placing a burned finger into his mouth. “That hurt!”

Aiden breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back, returning the whistle to his lips. After completing the song, Aiden waited for Death to come and claim his prize. When nothing happened, he turned to the boy. Something had changed in the young man’s face.

“Did you eat some of the fish?” 

“No, I didn’t!” the boy promised. 

 Little did he know that all the knowledge of the world had been condensed to the tiniest dripping of fat, that the boy ingested to soothe his burn, causing him to tell a lie, unknown.

After what seemed like hours, Death had still not come. The young boy went home to his family with his basket of trout. Aiden was left in the dusk with a rapidly cooling Salmon. Before long, footsteps approached.

“It’s about time,” Aiden scoffed.

The voice that answered was not death, but the sweet silvery voice of the woman from so long ago. “He is not coming, the wisdom has been passed.”

“What are you talking about?” Aiden rose to his feet. “I did everything right!”

“What’s left is just a fish,” she stated. “Eat your fill and leave here.” 

Though he didn’t want to believe it, Aiden knew this to be true. When the boy had left, his face had left no room for doubt. With great sorrow, Aiden ate his fill and left. He was heartbroken that he would not get to watch his daughter grow up but happy for the boy.

***

Aiden trudged down the path to his home. Everything was in disrepair, and this was not like Cara at all. He pushed open the door to their cottage and called to his wife?

“Cara!” 

His own voice echoed back, and the home was empty. Perhaps they moved into town? Aiden made his way back to the road and flagged down a man.

“Where did the healer woman go? The one that lived here.”

The man looked at him, confusion clear. “I don’t know what you are talking about. No one has lived in that cottage in decades.”

Aiden’s shoulders sagged, “No!” He protested. “I lived here with my family, just a few moons ago.”

“I think you’re confused,” the farmer continued. “The last person to live here was an ancient old crone. But she has been dead and buried since I was a kid.”

Aiden sank to his knees and wailed.

August 19, 2021 18:18

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16 comments

Beth Connor
00:46 Aug 20, 2021

This one was inspired by "The Salmon of Knowlege" a story out of the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology. The boy in the story would have been a young Fionn MacCumhaill. I'm not sure about the name- but the contest closes tomorrow, so if I can't think of anything better- it stays.

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Blue Green
06:58 Aug 21, 2021

This is a great story, sad but beautifully written. It also reminded me of "The Fisherman and his Wife", one of the Grimm's fairy tales.

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Beth Connor
21:22 Aug 22, 2021

I can see that! It was not intentional, but often there are hidden influences.

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Blue Green
12:26 Aug 23, 2021

It's only a passing similarity, and it simply came to mind when I first read the title :-)

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John K Adams
23:26 Aug 25, 2021

I must confess that fantasy and fairy stories are not my usual meat. But you have shown me if the characters ring true, regardless the fantastic circumstances, I will be captivated. Well done.

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Beth Connor
23:35 Aug 25, 2021

I appreciate you taking the time to read! I've been on a fantasy kick since Reedsy switched over to pay to submit system (since it's in my comfort zone). Eventually, I will go back to experimenting/taking risks with my short stories.

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Ryl J.
05:40 Aug 25, 2021

Oh my, this story was so beautiful, but also tragic and devastating! First of all, I loved the fact that he was a soldier and his wife was a healer, like I just thought that was so great that they're sort of opposites, but also not at the same time? Also, at first, I thought it'd have a happy ending, but I knew that, as soon as he left on his quest for the fish, things wouldn't be the same again. That ending still took me aback, though, like oh my goodness. It literally gave me chills. What a wonderful story!

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Beth Connor
16:33 Aug 25, 2021

Thank you so much for reading, and taking the time to comment!

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15:03 Aug 24, 2021

Oh this was so good, but so tragic. It was beautifully written, fantastic ❤️

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Beth Connor
22:13 Aug 24, 2021

Thank you!

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H L Mc Quaid
06:38 Aug 24, 2021

Really engrossing and creative. And well told!

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Shea West
12:33 Aug 23, 2021

What a fun Aesop Fable-esque type of story!!! I thought this might even categorize as a bedtime story of some sort. Gosh I felt bad for him😩

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Beth Connor
18:29 Aug 23, 2021

Yeah- it was a bit of a bummer ending LOL. I'm swapping up my longer project to be lighter, so I gotta get the sad endings out of my system!

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Shea West
18:55 Aug 23, 2021

Work out the "demons" and stop making us cry!

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K. Antonio
18:56 Aug 22, 2021

Really enjoyed the twist ending! I thought the pacing and reveal was well done and I could see this as a folktale!

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Daniel R. Hayes
06:11 Aug 22, 2021

Wow!! This story was brilliant :) I was hooked from the very beginning, and I think this story was amazing. I loved the fact that he set out to get the salmon and things didn't go his way. I thought he was going to catch it and everything would be alright, but nope. You fooled me... lol. This was a masterpiece!! Great Job :)

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