‘What is it?’
Stumbling into the village, I lay my burden down on the ground near the central fire. ‘I found… in the river.’ I was breathless as I knelt by the side of it and unwound my cloak.
‘It’s a demon.’
I looked up, Krim made the sign of warding off evil as he stepped back.
‘No. It… she is a human, like us.’ I touched the wet hair. It was a soft golden colour, like the fields when they ripen in the summer sun.
‘But the… is that hair?’ Jetta was by my side, as always. She knelt down too. ‘Is it… she, do you think?’
‘She is alive, but only just,’ I said. ‘I found her on the bank of the river.’ I’d left my fishing spears on the bank. I would have to go back for them. By now, some animal would’ve taken the two fish I’d caught that morning.
‘But the colour of her skin,’ Tem said, speaking with the directness of a child. ‘It is not normal.’
‘I’ve never seen anything like that.’ Lilu eased her way through the crowd. Each giving way when they realised whose wrinkled hands pushed them aside. I had felt the strength in those old hands myself. But Lilu had more than strength that bellied her years.
‘Is it a demon?’ someone asked Lilu.
Lilu studied the body at her feet.
My hand, resting on the girl’s brow did not move. Lilu’s would be the word to decide whether the half-drowned wretch lived or died.
‘This is so strange,’ Lilu said. She reached out a hand to touch the creature. There was a hiss of breath from those watching.
Lilu looked up at me. ‘She feels human.’ Lilu bent lower, ‘smells human.’ She lifted the sodden rag that covered the strange being. ‘That’s human too.’ The tight curls there were of a similar colour to the hair on the female’s head.
Lilu reached out a hand and Tem helped her to her feet. ‘I heard a story once of a pale goddess from the river,’ Lilu mused looking down at the woman at her feet. ‘But the river has so many secrets. Who are we to know what the river knows?’
My hand rested on the woman’s stomach, feeling the breath moving more regularly now. The woman coughed. Everyone took a step back, even Lilu although she did her best to disguise the movement.
‘I’ve heard of pale demons, golden-haired devils too, though.’ Lilu looked around the crowd, judging the mood. I’d often thought Lilu’s decisions seemed wise because she told us what we wanted or needed to hear rather than any great wisdom bought by her age and experience.
‘She is no devil or demon,’ I said.
‘What makes you so wise, Jakka?’ Lilu looked down at me.
‘Would a devil or a demon need a man like me to pull her from the river? Would a goddess need the hand of a mortal?’
Lilu appeared to consider this. ‘Take her to my hut,’ she said eventually. ‘I have herbs and potions. We will find out if we have a devil or a goddess. Whichever one she turns out to be, it will be good to have such a one owning us a favour.’
I bent down and picked up the half-drowned woman, hearing her mumble in a strange language. I was half-afraid I’d done something in rescuing her that would mean my life would never be the same again.
I was right.