PodCastle 606: River’s Giving
Rated PG for jolly old beasts of terror.
Heather Shaw, River Shaw, and Tim Pratt
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Alexander who lived in a village by a river in a valley in the shadow of a mountain. Every year when the days grew short and the air grew cold and the snow fell, the village would hold a celebration called River’s Giving. The festival kept spirits bright as darkness grew, and the people there looked forward to the cold of the longest night as much as they did the warmth of the longest day. At least they did until the year it all went wrong.
The young adults spent all summer tending sheep and spinning thread, and the older children spent the fall knitting long nets to string across the river. They decorated the nets with bright green sharp-edged leaves and sprigs of white and red berries that were no good for eating but beautiful for seeing. They also hung tiny bells all over the nets, and these jingled in the water, a sound that always meant joy to Alexander.
In the week before the festival, those adults who were so inclined would wield their slings and bows and stones and arrows to display their hunting prowess, or toss logs and heavy stones in shows of strength, all in friendly competition, with cheers for the winners and consolation drinks for the losers. Alexander’s mother usually came in second or third with the bow these days, after winning five straight years in a row. Some people said she was losing her touch, but Alexander’s father whispered that she just thought it was nice to let other people win sometimes. Life in the village was like that; people shared everything, even victory.
Those who took particular pleasure and pride in their cooking would lay out a feast every night, showing off their best before their most precious delicacies could be overshadowed by strange and unforeseen gifts from the river. Alexander’s father made a sort of pudding out of pig’s liver that was the most disgusting thing in existence, but some people who weren’t Alexander seemed to like it. Every night, the people lit fires, and everyone danced, even the revered elders.
On River’s Giving, the people would gather on the banks as the sun broke over the top of the mountain. The water rushing down from the heights would turn mysteriously dark, and then the gifts would appear, one or two at a time, bobbing in the water: egg-shaped pods that shone like moonlight, some small enough to hide in a fist, some bigger than canoes. The gifts would fill the nets, and everyone watched half-afraid — Alexander was too young to remember the year the nets had broken, but everyone still talked about it, and they wove their nets stronger now.
Once the waters turned clear, and the gifts stopped coming, the villagers hauled in the nets. They arranged the gifts in the town square, and the families took turns opening them according to a complicated rotating system. Some pods opened like flowers blossoming at the tap of a knuckle, while others had to be cracked open with mauls or axes. The shells fell away to reveal gifts inside, from the useful to the lovely, the practical to the magical, and some all at once. There were jeweled cups and slender spoons, potions that made your breath taste sweet and bottles of scent that made your head swim, a pedal-driven machine that turned milk into butter, magical bracelets that let you lift a thousand pounds and magical boots that let you leap a dozen feet high. There were small boxes that sang like birds and large boxes that cooked meat in seconds, whistles that summoned cats and ear muffs that blocked all sound, looms that ran themselves and spinning wheels that kept spinning until they were stopped. There were usually cornucopia that spilled forth summer fruit or golden grain or sweet milk or wine when you tipped them over. There were strange and useless things, too: little carts that drove themselves and got underfoot, a flute that called all the rats and roaches and vermin to the player, a shiny gold rock that made people fall asleep when they touched it, and tiny toy reindeer that flew into the sky as soon as the pod opened and never came back. The villagers shared the best treasures around, letting all the children have a turn with the toys, and those gifts powerful enough to benefit the village entire were given to the care of the revered elders.
You might think, looking at the bounty in the square every year, that the village would be rich and famed far and wide. But the gifts from the river never lasted long — they made the winter easier and more enjoyable, but by summer the spinning wheels would only run in reverse, the soles fell off the magic boots, the whistles wouldn’t make a sound, the cornucopias poured out sand and dust, and the wheels fell off the little carts. The villagers would salvage what they could and trade away the rest, since there was a market somewhere for even broken bits of metal and hairy bits of string.
The year everything went wrong was Alexander’s first year decorating the nets. He hung his bells carefully, one by one, and counted the days, and the hours, and the minutes. On the days leading up to River’s Giving, he wolfed his food and wished the musicians would put down their instruments, as if finishing the festivities sooner would make the gifts come faster. After they strung the nets across the river, he sat watching the water until his mother called him in, even though he knew the gifts wouldn’t flow that day.
The morning of River’s Giving finally came. Alexander’s family walked with maddening slowness to the banks, and he raced ahead, vibrating with anticipation. He watched the water for that first change of color while the townspeople sang songs about the bounty of the river and the sleep of the sun. He was as close to the water as he could be without getting wet, and his nerves were strung as tight as the net as he waited.
And waited. The sun broke over the mountain and shone on clear water. Noon came, and people drifted off, murmuring, to eat. Alexander and some other children stayed, some singing half-heartedly, but eventually they all left, the littlest crying and bewildered. Except Alexander. He stayed until it was dark and his oldest sister was sent to fetch him home. That night, the revered elders stood in the center of the village, shrugging and saying they’d never heard of such a thing and that they’d try again tomorrow.
Tomorrow was no different. The water flowed clear.
That year, the dark water and its bounty never came. After three days, only a handful of children bothered to stand by the river’s edge. The berries and leaves in the netting looked bedraggled and sad, and the wool began to fray and unravel.
The mood in the village was as dark as the river wasn’t. Without the cornucopias, winter was going to be harder than usual — they had enough staples to survive but there would be precious few treats or luxuries. The days grew colder, and there were no magical toys to brighten the long hours spent indoors, no conveniences to lighten the work of cold hands and numb fingers. The townsfolk tended fires for warmth and told stories of gifts past and tried to make the best of things when things weren’t even good.
Alexander was bereft. The days were short, the nights long, the cold biting, and all the light and warmth seemed sucked out of the end of the year. No one expressed their fear out loud, but Alexander could sense it: What if there were no gifts next year, either?
After a miserable winter, the townsfolk were happy to see spring. Most shook off their bitterness as they took to the fields . . . but not Alexander. He set his eyes higher.
Once the snow was gone from all but the highest peak, he packed some food and a blanket and a walking stick and set off along a nearly invisible path. He was determined to find out what had gone wrong. Perhaps there was a fallen tree across the river, big enough to stop the pods but not the water, and he would find dozens of gifts just gleaming and waiting and return a hero. Or maybe some villainous trader who’d heard of their festival had crept up the icy peak and strung a net of his own to steal their bounty, and Alexander could spy on him and go back for the strongest people in the village and bring the thief to justice.
People from the village never went up the mountain. Some had, long ago, to try to find the source of the gifts, thinking to make every day a festival, but they’d never returned, and much later (or so the story went), bones had washed down in the water, broken and chewed. The general attitude was: Don’t question the miracle, lest you destroy it. Alexander was fine with that . . . but he was questioning why the miracle had stopped. He thought that was different. He knew better than to ask his parents or sister or the revered elders if they agreed.
It took many days to ascend the mountain, following barely perceptible paths that no one had walked for generations. He grew tired, and his feet hurt, and he daydreamed about building a raft and sailing down the river to reach the bottom faster, though he passed enough waterfalls to know it wasn’t practical.
He finally rounded a curve near the top of the mountain and stared into the mouth of a cave. Inside, a dragon lay curled up, nose tucked under tail.
Alexander had never seen a dragon before, but this could hardly be anything else: bigger than the house of elders in the village, covered in scales the silver of the moon, wisps of smoke rising from its nose. He was briefly frozen in place before terror overcame paralysis and he began to back away.
The dragon opened one eye, as red as a berry. “A human. Have you come to steal my hoard?”
Alexander shook his head and croaked out, “No, sir. Or ma’am. Revered elder.”
“Just ‘dragon’ will do.” The dragon lifted its head and swung it closer to Alexander. “Are you sure you aren’t a thief? Some other humans came to steal my hoard just a few years ago. Or was it . . . a hundred years? Something like that. Whenever it was, it didn’t end well for them.”
Alexander didn’t want to ask for details. “No. Definitely not.”
“Then why climb here, where no one climbs?”
“I came because the river didn’t bring us any gifts this year. I wanted to see what went wrong.”
“River? What river? You mean the spring? I suppose it does mix with the melting snow and rain and become a river down there, eventually. What gifts are you talking about? Fish and things? I don’t eat all of them.”
“No, the river, every year, well, every year until last year, it brings us dozens of these sort of eggs, pods, and we fish them out and open them up and they’re full of the most wonderful treasures—”
It took Alexander a moment to realize that the dragon was laughing, since it sounded more like a cave-in or an avalanche. “That’s where it all went? Ha. Come look, human.” The dragon stood up, catlike and relaxed, and sauntered out of the cave mouth and down a trail as wide as the road to the capital. After a moment’s hesitation, Alexander followed, because refusing a dragon seemed ill-advised. The path wound around the mountain until it reached a waterfall, a torrent of snowmelt rushing down.
The dragon lifted one clawed hand and pointed to a jumble of boulders just above the waterfall. “Do you see that? Where I’ve shoved all those rocks in and melted them together?”
Now that Alexander looked closer, the rocks did seem fused and melted on the edges. “Yes, dragon.”
“Until last year that was a hole, though I didn’t know it was there. A hole, right at the bottom of my hoard!”
“I’m sorry, dragon. What’s a hoard?”
“You don’t know what a hoard is? It’s my life’s work. The great big pile of treasure I’ve been painstakingly gathering for centuries, and there was a hole beneath it! Mostly the treasures sort of . . . jammed up against the hole, and stayed stuck there, but every year when I returned from my collecting expedition and dumped the new beauties on top, that would shake a few treasures loose, along with a lot of black dirt and old muck, and it all fell into the waterfall and washed away. I wondered where it ended up. I only discovered the hole because I noticed my hoard wasn’t getting larger as fast as it should.” The dragon shook its head. “Wasteful. Set me back decades.”
Alexander stared. There were many theories about the origin of the gifts, of course — that they were presents from local gods; that they were trash thrown away by the denizens of some impossibly magical city on top of the mountain; that there was a tribe of inexplicably generous elves who lived in the snow and entertained themselves by making toys and tossing them into the river. No one had ever suggested they were the spillover from a dragon’s hoard. “Ah,” Alexander said, throat dry. “That explains it.”
“Wait a moment,” the dragon said. “Did you say you collected my treasures and broke open the preservation pods? The things at the bottom of the hoard are old — they should fall apart within months if exposed to the elements.”
“They do fall apart,” Alexander conceded. “But we get a lot of enjoyment out of them first, you know.” He wasn’t sure how to ask what he wanted to ask in a respectful way, so he just asked it straight out. “Do you get enjoyment out of them? The things in your hoard? I mean, if you seal them up in pods, and throw them in a hole in a cave . . . I’m sorry, but what’s the point?”
“The point?” The dragon cocked its head, oddly birdlike. “The point is having a hoard. The biggest hoard, with the best things in it. The having is the point.”
Alexander considered that. There was an old man in the village, an elder but not especially revered, who’d done some work in the capital once and come back with a bag of gold coins, which no one in the village had any use for. He’d hidden the coins behind a rock in his fireplace and never let anyone see them. He put a big lock and a bar on his door — the only house in the village with either of those — and he looked suspiciously at anyone who passed. Everyone reckoned he was a bit wrong in the head, but people were kind about it.
“Where do you get all these treasures?” Alexander asked. “When you go collecting? Do you buy them in the capital?” Perhaps if Alexander could find another source of gifts to make the villagers happy . . .
The dragon sniffed. “Various capitals, and other cities, in other lands. People give me treasures in exchange for services rendered.”
“What sort of services rendered?” Alexander asked.
The dragon shifted its enormous shoulders in a shrug. “Not rendering them into tallow, mostly.”
Alexander looked at him blankly.
“Not setting them on fire, I mean. Not setting their cities on fire. Not eating them. It’s amazing how much people will pay in exchange for not being eaten.”
Alexander didn’t run. You couldn’t outrun a dragon anyway. So he just nodded. “What if a bigger dragon came along and threatened to eat you if you didn’t give it your treasures? Wouldn’t you be sad?”
“I’m the biggest,” the dragon said, very patiently. “Go back a moment. When you said you get enjoyment out of these things. Explain.”
“Well, we play with them. We all share them around, you know. They give us pleasure in the cold months. The colors, the flavors, the magic. I love seeing my sister’s face light up when she—”
“Hold on,” the dragon interrupted. “You like seeing other people enjoy my treasures?”
“Of course! That’s the best part. When you open up a pod and there’s something inside that you just know will make your mother or brother or granny or friend light up and laugh with delight, and you race over to give it to them . . . it’s wonderful.”
“Wonderful. Giving. Is it really?”
“It is really.” Then, before he could become too afraid to be so bold, Alexander said, “You might try it. Giving gifts, instead of just piling them up. Seeing people play with the treasures . . . you might like it.”
The dragon stroked its chin with one claw. “Hmm. I’ve done a lot of taking. Mastered it. But these past few decades, taking has come to feel a bit routine. Giving. Why not give it a try.”
The dragon went up the side of the mountain, and Alexander followed to its cave. Inside, the hoard sparkled. The dragon hung a set of immense saddlebags over itself, tightened straps across its belly, and scooped a random bunch of pods off the top of its hoard into the sacks. “Get in,” the dragon said and opened one of the bags for Alexander to clamber inside. “We’ll fly down to your village and see about this giving.”
Alexander grabbed onto a bit of loose thread as big as a rope and looped it around his waist. “People might be afraid if they see a dragon swoop down . . .”
“Very well.” The dragon trundled out of the cave and jumped off the mountain. Alexander screamed, but the dragon didn’t seem to notice. Within minutes, the dragon was perched on a crag overlooking the village, beside the river. There were people fishing and washing clothes along the riverbanks. “Toss things down,” the dragon said.
Alexander clambered out of the bag and dropped pods into the river. The dragon dropped the bigger ones and handed Alexander the smaller. The people below were tiny dots, but Alexander could sense their excitement when the first pods appeared and they waded out to collect them. Alexander kept dropping treasures until the dragon had emptied its bags and villagers had formed a human chain across the river and swarmed the banks.
“They do seem happy,” the dragon said.
“If you could see their faces,” Alexander began.
The dragon interrupted, “I see them as clearly as I see you. Dragon eyes. I’ve never seen humans look anything other than scared or blank or angry. That sound — is that how humans sound when they laugh?”
Alexander couldn’t hear them — human ears — but he laughed himself. “Like this?”
“Indeed. I had no idea. It’s . . . nice. I wonder if I can laugh that way.” The dragon said, “HEE HA HO! How’s that?”
“Maybe . . . keep practicing.”
The dragon regarded Alexander. “Do you think other humans would like to receive treasures?”
“I’ve spent centuries building my hoard. I could give a little away, just for a change. The things near the top are newer, and won’t fall apart after a few months, either. Hmm. Let me try laughing again: HAR HOO HEE! Closer?”
“A little. Thank you, dragon. You’ve made my people so happy.”
“Usually humans say ‘thank you’ in a different way. ‘For not eating me this time,’ they say. There’s crying. But you really mean it, don’t you?” The dragon lowered its head and looked at Alexander. “You say the gifts are especially welcome in the coldest, darkest months, yes?”
That winter, on the eve of River’s Giving, Alexander dressed in his warmest clothes and went to the appointed spot, on an icy trail by a waterfall. The dragon was waiting, saddlebags bulging . . . and there was a seat at the base of its neck with cushions and straps. “Do you really think we can visit all the villages in the valley before dawn?” Alexander asked.
“I am swift,” the dragon said. “And in the dark, no one will see me and scream. I brought a lot of treasures. Can you distribute them all?”
“I’ll try. If it’s too much, next year we can recruit some helpers. There are plenty of children who’d love to ride through the sky with a dragon.” Then, shyly. “I brought you something.”
“A gift? For me?” The dragon was astounded. “Given freely?”
Alexander unwound a long necklace of bells from his bag. “To wear around your neck. They’ll jingle as you fly, and next year, when people hear the bells, they’ll know it’s River’s Giving. Except . . . it’s Dragon’s Giving, now.”
The dragon solemnly lowered its head. Alexander clambered up its armored skull to put the necklace on. Alexander clambered into his seat, and the dragon leapt into the air, the jingling of the bells and Alexander’s laughter joining together.
“That laugh of yours!” the dragon shouted. “I think I’ve got it. How’s this?” The dragon took a deep breath and bellowed: “HO! HO! HAW!”
“You’re getting there,” Alexander said.
About the Authors
Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, UX Designer, sewist, and lindy hopper living in Berkeley, CA with her husband and 15-year-old son, River. She’s had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, The Year’s Best Fantasy, Escape Pod, PodCastle, and other nice places. She has been the fiction editor at the erotica zine Fishnet, the speculative fiction zine Flytrap, and the pro-SF zine, Persistent Visions. As a family project during lockdown, Heather, Tim, and their son River designed, created, and successfully Kickstarted a tabletop card game called Cyberwreck. You can find more about Heather at her website, www.UXbyHeather.com
Tim Pratt is the author of over 30 novels, most recently multiverse adventures Doors of Sleep and Prison of Sleep. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He’s also a senior editor and occasional book reviewer for Locus magazine. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.
About the Narrator
Kyle Akers is a voice actor from Kansas City, Missouri. He has contributed to The NoSleep Podcast, Pseudopod, Escape Pod and Chilling Tales for Dark Nights among many others. Prior to voice acting, Kyle toured the country as a professional musician, singing and playing bass guitar for the electro-pop band Antennas Up, which enjoyed success through several national television show placements and commercials. Since then, Kyle has dabbled in long-form improv and audio production while performing weekend gigs with Kansas City cover band The Magnetics.