Excerpt for The Water Reader by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Sally Startup

The Water Reader

A short story related to the Tree Speaker novels

Bees’ Nest Books

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this story are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

Smashwords edition published 2018 by Bees’ Nest Books

Copyright 2018 Sally Startup

Cover picture copyright Sally Startup 2018

The right of Sally Startup to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Smashwords edition, License Notes

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The Water Reader

At last, he came to the sea. Being a water reader, he had followed his inner and outer senses to find the way. He searched for a teacher, who was said to live right on the land’s edge.

Standing on the summit of a hill that was almost bare of trees, he looked at the sea for the very first time. He watched its shifting colours, hearing its distant voice catch against that of the wind. The air smelled and tasted of wild salt.

Needing to go closer, he sought out the nearest stream, climbed in, and began following the freshwater’s path downhill.

The stream was shallow, but the way was steep. Sometimes its water tumbled over large rocks in noisy cascades. Leaping with it, he was not so graceful on landing, yet he managed not to slip badly.

The sea was out of sight behind the bushes that grew along the stream banks, but then, at last, the freshwater slowed and widened. After passing underneath some rockgripper trees, he stepped into a channel running through a gentle slope of long grass. Beyond the grass, there was only sand, spreading all the way to the green salt seawater.

The noise of the sea was now loud in his ears. It was nothing like the voices of rivers or lakes or streams.

The stream that had shown the way snaked into many channels across the sand, running on to join the sea. Pulling off his travelling pack, then his wet boots, he prepared to follow.

Leaving all his clothes piled on the shore, he went naked to greet the sea for the very first time. There was salt water in the sand beneath his feet. Gritty, salt-laden air cooled his skin. Ahead, moving water rolled and tumbled into a white frill all along the sand. He ran into it, laughing.

Cold bit at his ankles, but he was not put off, and waded deeper. The tug of flowing water all around his legs was massively strong. Impulsively, he let himself fall forwards, arms outstretched, to immerse himself full-length. As the shockingly powerful taste of the salt hit his lips, he rolled over to float on his back. The sky was overcast with rainclouds. There was water above him and water below.

He could sense the richness of the seawater. It was thick with dissolved rock, and all kinds of living things and dead things. Plants and animals lived inside the water just as he lived inside the air. He realised the sea was even bigger than he had ever imagined.

A distant shout surprised him. He raised his head and dropped his legs, but found no surface within reach of his feet. He was in too deep, and had not monitored the flow of the water underneath him. Kicking his legs slowly to keep himself upright, he looked towards the shore. There was a woman standing there, her long grey hair flying around her shoulders. She was holding his clothes in her arms.

Blinking stinging salt from his eyes and continuing to paddle gently with his legs and hands, he saw that he was drifting further away from the shore and the woman there. He had not noticed the water’s current carrying him out so far and so quickly. If the woman had not warned him, he might have gone out a very long way. Too far, perhaps. He was already rather cold.

Concentrating carefully on the feel of the current, he found that it did not extend far from side to side. So, instead of trying to swim directly back the way he had come, he turned sideways to it, facing neither out to sea, nor in to the shore. Then he swam fiercely, heading for the edge of the current.

He felt the sea’s power and he was afraid. Even this close to land, where the water was weak and quiet, he had to struggle to get free of its grasp. The woman stayed where she was, as if she knew that he was using the sight of her as his anchor.

At last, he knew that the current had released him, and it was safe to turn and swim towards the shore. He soon reached the shallows, where he could stand. He splashed his way through the foam, and the woman came to him, holding out his clothes.

“Thought I was going to have to come in after you,” she said. “Get dressed before you freeze. Are you crazy, like a witherbird?”

He shook his head, and smiled as best he could with his teeth chattering. He took his clothes from her and pulled them on, quickly.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“N... name’s Hest. I wanted to greet the sea. They say that I’m a water reader.”

“A water reader would surely have the sense not to go swimming on this beach when the tide’s going out.”

“I’m from the hills. I never saw the sea before today.”

“So, why are you here? Just to meet the sea?”

“I c... came here because Ripple the riverwoman heard there was another water reader near here. I’m look-k... looking for a teacher.”

“And what do you think of her, now you’ve found her?”

“The sea? Magnificent!”

“And the water reader?”

“Oh.” He stared at her. “Are you Greyfin?

“Aye.” Her blue eyes returned his gaze. “I live here, on this beach.”

“I need to learn how to use my talent, but water reading’s very rare, they say. I came a long way to find you. Riverpeople told me where to look for you, and they all said you would be the best one to help me. There’s so much I need to learn. Please, would you teach me?”

“Ha ha ha ha ha! No.”

Greyfin turned away from him and stalked off. She was barefoot, and her narrow trousers ended at her knees. Hest stayed where he was, wondering if he had ruined everything by rushing so foolishly into the water.

He had no idea what to do next. Staring after Greyfin, he saw her bend to pick something up from the sand. She then walked inland, never looking back at him, but stopping several times to collect small objects in her path.

Hest went to get his travelling pack and his boots. Then he followed her, sensing a current that had not let him go.

As Greyfin went towards the tall grasses behind the beach, Hest saw there was a small wooden hut there. It was low-roofed, and almost hidden from view.

By the time Hest reached the hut, Greyfin was sitting outside it on an upturned basket. She was sorting through a pile of small stones and shells, ignoring him as he approached.

He sat down on a grass tussock, watching her examine each thing closely. He could not tell what the sorting out meant, or what it was for.

“My father is a stone listener, in the hills,” Hest said. “I know how to listen, and to watch in silence. I’m sorry I ran into the sea without thinking. I won’t do it again.”

Greyfin did not answer, but neither did she indicate that he should go away. So he stayed. When he was not watching Greyfin, he watched the sea. The waves appeared to draw closer to the shore as the rest of the afternoon passed.

Towards sunset, Greyfin got to her feet, looked in Hest’s direction and beckoned. When he went over to the hut, she showed him a wooden bucket that contained salty-smelling green and brown weeds soaking in fresh water. Dumping the lot into a straining basket, she passed the emptied bucket to Hest. Understanding, he then carried it inland and refilled it from the stream. By the time he returned, Greyfin had built a small fire on the sand just beyond her hut.

Using her finger to stir the water Hest had brought back, Greyfin seemed satisfied with its quality. Hest saw that she had already laid out the salty weeds and some dried roots on a flat rock and chopped them up with her belt knife. These now went into a metal pot on the fire with some of the fresh water.

All the time the soup was cooking, Greyfin crouched in the warmth of the fire and watched the sea. Hest did likewise, except when he was watching Greyfin. When the soup was ready, she shared it with him. It was strange and slimy. After they had eaten, he cleaned the pot for her and doused the fire.

“May I stay here at this beach for a while?” he asked, at last. “And watch what you do, so that I can learn to be a better water reader than I am now?”

By then, it was after sunset. He could not see her face, which was turned away from the fire.

“I will not try to stop you from doing that,” she replied.

Then Greyfin stood and began walking out towards the sea. So Hest followed.

The edge of the water had come even closer, leaving only a thin stretch of sand to walk over.

Greyfin went very close to the water’s edge. Starlight glittered on the water’s surface. They both watched it in silence. Hest waited a little behind Greyfin, uncertain of her purpose. He sensed the rising of a waxing moon, but did not look up. The water lightened from reflected moonglow. Greyfin raised her arms, holding them out across the sea ahead of her. She stayed like that for a long time.

Intent on watching the water immediately in front of him, Hest nearly missed what she had done. Then he happened to turn his gaze sideways, and cried out in surprise.

On each side of where they stood, the sea had already crept higher towards the land, almost as far as the tall grasses. But around himself and Greyfin, the water had left a dry tongue. Somehow, she had talked to the forces that made the seawater flow, and persuaded it to go another way.

Hest could not begin to imagine how she had done it. He knew how to persuade fresh water in a jug to climb up the sides and overflow, and he had once managed the same trick with the water at the bottom of a well. But the sea was entirely different. He stared at Greyfin, seeing only the dark shape of her, and suddenly finding himself very afraid.

She lowered her arms, and in the same the instant the sea returned to its normal patterns. Suddenly, cold water closed in around them, drenching them both up to the knees. Hest’s feet sank deeper into the sand as he fought to keep his balance.

“Not fair to the water to keep it back for too long,” Greyfin said.

They waded out onto dry grass. Greyfin then walked back to her hut and went inside, shutting the door firmly behind her.

Needing sleep, Hest collected his pack and boots, and returned to the mouth of the stream. There, he made himself a bed of moss and fallen leaves in a sandy hollow, close to the stream and sheltered under the branches of a rockgripper. In the morning, he intended to watch the sea once more, and learn from it. If Greyfin came out, he would watch her, too.

About Sally Startup

Sally Startup lives in Hampshire, England. She used to be a professional medical herbalist, so plants often get into her stories. She keeps a messy garden full of useful weeds and a herb cupboard full of home-made remedies.

Discover other titles by Sally Startup and connect with Sally online at

Tree Speaker by Sally Startup

There should not have been a deadly spike fish in the river in winter. Willow watched her best friend, Hest, paddling barefoot in the water. Hest was searching for a firestone, which he thought he had seen from the bank. Willow’s other best friend, Emmie, had begged him to fetch it, because she didn’t have a firestone of her own, and she badly wanted one.

“I wouldn’t want to be an Animal Talker,” Hest said, just before he trod on the spike fish.

Tree speaking is a talent, like stone listening and animal talking. Tree speakers are healers, knowing both plants and people. But the world beyond Willow's small village is changing. She must find a way to use her talent to protect her way of life.

Download Tree Speaker here

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