FICTION: Only A Paddle by Amelia Mason

Kae flung the trout into her canoe, then heaved herself over the side. She did not stop to rest. Sitting idle with blood’s scent trailing in the water was a sure way to get killed. She did not pause even to bind her arm where the trout had bitten her. It could bleed safely into the canoe. She paddled away.

A minute and a quarter-mile later, Kae stuck the paddle down so the canoe’s momentum carried it around in an arc. She drew the blade through the water again, but gently this time. Moving slowly to avoid leaving a wake, Kae remained wary. This was the worst part of a flight. Anything might have tracked her until the turn. The churning water might even have attracted something that could not smell her blood. She dipped the paddle and pulled, quivering from the effort of slow, steady movement. The water was shadow-free. Her breath came easier as she inched into safety.

At last, Kae put the paddle down and seized the trout, still alive and squirming in the puddled bottom of the canoe. She grinned as it tried to bite her again. “You’re out of luck, little fishy,” she told it. ‘Little’ was a poor descriptor for a fish the length of her arm, but Kae liked to insult her food. Everything in the lake was too arrogant by half.

Running out of oxygen, the trout squirmed, but Kae had her fingers hooked through its gills. She waited for it to die before she bit into its neck, making a hole so she could tug off its skin. Careless of blood running down her arms, Kae feasted on its flesh. Only a part of her remained mindful of bones hiding like knives in the meat. She sucked them clean and built a cairn between her feet, dumping the skin and entrails on top.

It was a bright, clear day. Inconvenient, but it did mean that Kae could see the shore. She had to stay a mile out; any closer and her Stay would be forfeit and the count of days would stop at four. Four was not a bad number. Most women making a Stay only managed one, if that. Only a few made it past ten. Kae’s great-aunt had reached thirty days. Thirty years earned. She was only five years married, and her husband was as much in awe of her as anyone.

Kae had no illusions. She would not reach thirty. She probably would not see ten. The lake had nearly had her twice, only luck saving her from her own mistakes. Four days was respectable, even impressive. She could paddle for home that minute and be welcomed. But in a few hours it would be day six; a whole year longer before she had to share the cup with Riuyem. Assuming she was not eaten before she could get back to shore.

A ripple in the distance caught her eye. Kae put the trout’s tail down and gripped the side of the canoe, squinting. There was no wind, but there was definitely a movement in the water. And it was coming for her. Something wriggled below her hand. She reached down, careful not to dip any bloodied fingers in the water, and plucked it off the wood. It was a stinkworm, fat and dripping a vile oil into the water.

Cursing, Kae threw it as hard as she could. The stinkworm was an accomplice to something much bigger: a scupperfish. Both creatures were wood-eaters but, while the stinkworm could only nibble at her canoe, the scupperfish would wreck it and swallow the pieces. If it found her, and it would be following the smell of the oil like a hound, she would be swimming for home. Covered in blood and more than a mile out, she would not make it twenty strokes.

The scupperfish’s ripple betrayed a pause. Was it turning towards the stinkworm? Kae glared over the water. Hells, it’s still coming! No amount of varnishing would cover the scent of wood in water. And scupperfish had powerful noses. This one knew where she was. Well, her canoe. It had no interest in her.

It was speeding now. Kae looked around wildly, searching for something to fight with. You did not take weapons on a Stay. You were supposed to use what you could find in the lake. She had her paddle, nothing else. Water mounding over the scupperfish did not show its size. Kae knew, though. There was no point in paddling away. The thing would follow wherever she went, if she could somehow out-pace it. It would not have been so bad, marrying Riuyem.

In that moment between despair and resignation, Kae had a terrible, reckless idea. A stupid, stupid plan.

She did not hesitate.

Kae scooped up the trout’s entrails and tossed them overboard, then followed with handfuls of bloody water. “Come on,” she muttered, keeping an eye on the grey mound that indicated the scupperfish. “Come on.”There was no time left. She needed more blood. She took up a trout bone, like a tiny blade, and sliced at the bite in her arm until it grew wider, deeper, and started to drool scarlet like a fire mount. She held the cut over the water and looked for shadows.

The scupperfish raced closer. Kae could see how big it was now, twenty paces long and thick around like a battering ram. Closer. She could see its great, grey eyes, malicious and hungry. Closer. It lowered its head to put the bulbous top of its skull in line for the hit. Kae held her breath, one last sweep of the water. And there, a streak of crimson flashed past. A red shark, drawn by the smell of her blood in the water, spotted the scupperfish and attacked, pummelling into its side. The scupperfish bent around the impact and sent a spray of water up with its flailing tail. Well, if her blood had not done it, that would. The water darkened from where the red shark had caught the scupperfish with its teeth. More ripples picked up all around. It was time to disappear.

Kae tried to ignore the monsters long enough to think. She bound her arm with cloth torn from her shirt and paddled. Anywhere would do, just away. She had to be careful, though. Some of the new ripples were ahead of her. She slopped the canoe’s sides with water to get off the blood residue and began weaving her way to safety.

It was a tense hour, but everything for miles was intent on reaching the fight Kae had caused. A battle like that would mean easy prey. Easy enough that Kae slipped through gaps she would never have attempted, had she not known that the predators would be intent on other things. Still, she paddled far and fast, only stopping when she reached the shallows where she spent her nights. Shallow water brought its own dangers, but few that would move in the dark.

Huddled in the canoe, Kae watched the sun slip below the rim of the world. Five days over, day six just beginning.

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Amelia Mason is a graduate of the University of Warwick, is living in London, and is currently involved in the end stages of writing her first novel. She is a collector of stories and knows it’s time to write when her fingers start twitching.

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