These are our lands—the hills and the valleys, the corn fields and streams. We know these paths as a man knows his own body. People think they kick us out of their towns with their ugly stares, but honestly there’s no place we feel more at home. There’s dust in our throats, grass at our backs, and a warm fire always within reach. I’ve never been happier than with the caravan, watching alongside my family as the stars come out.
But there has always been one thing in Skadi that has drawn me away.
I sit on the edge of the carriage as it trundles up the hill, reaching along the familiar paths into the air and plucking a blossoming star out of the dimming sky. Once it’s milled down, I pinch a bit of stardust from the bowl of my mortar and rub it between my fingers. The dust is cool and soft, but beneath that there’s an energy like liquid lightning as it turns my skin from the heather of my people to the pale white of the mud walkers. I hate having to do this, but I know that it’s worth it.
By the time I finish, the hillside is alive with music. The wagons have been pulled into a circle, the cook fires glow in the center while the people sit and play their lutes and tell their stories. Each old story is fresh, never the same from one telling to the next, and it fills my heart with a secret thrum. The old, weathered voices travel a familiar road into my being where they will live in my bones until I’m little more than dust in the sky, long gone.
Two of my family are sitting by the bridge that crosses into Skadi. One of them has tied a string to a stick and is trying to fish in the river while the other picks at a lute that he hasn’t yet mastered the trick of.
“Orri!” the fisher says, turning so the pale moonlight washes over his face, flashing his eyes both green and gold when he laughs. He runs a thumb across his cheek. “Almost didn’t recognize you like that. Sneaking into town again? You know what will happen if the mud walkers find you.”
“Hakon! Ah, let them throw their stones, it’s worth it.” I clap him on the shoulder and lean across the gorge, peering down into the water below. The night sky twinkles in the slow waters. “No luck today?”
“’Fraid not, the fish don’t want to come out.” Hakon frowns, furrowing his brow and twitching the stick. He thumbs back across his shoulder to the lute player. “I brought Petur out to help me call to them, but…”
“Say no more. I think your lute needs an adjustment is all.” I squint up at the sky, counting the stars that halo the moon.
“It’s not the lute, I just need more—” Petur begins but soon stops, gasping.
“Here, try this.” I fish my hand through the black sky and call down two stars. They alight on the tips of my fingers, sending shrill and cold rushes across my skin and making my hair prickle. My breath is held in my chest when I touch my fingers to the lute and only releases when I feel their power leave, humming sweetly through the maple wood and fine strings. “The fish will come to your call now, surely.”
“Orri, you can’t use magic to solve all of your problems,” Hakon says but he’s laughing and I can see him licking his lips already as he adjusts his fishing pole.
“At least for tonight it won’t hurt.” I wink at Petur, who is already testing his fingers on the new strings. The sound is as quick as lightning and as sweet as a flower. The fish jump in the water below, adding a tinkling melody just beneath.
I’m already halfway across the bridge before they notice I’m gone and start shouting their thanks. I look back to see the glistening shape of a fish on the line. Hearing the laughter trill across the way is enough to make me smile.
I wouldn’t leave the caravan for anything in the world if it weren’t for her. It’s the way she smiles that makes going into Skadi seem worth it at all. The dirty streets and cramped roads are enough to make my stomach cinch, to say nothing of the men who would as soon kill my kind as say hello, but the memory of her keeps me moving. We only come through once or twice in a year. It’s never enough, but it’s always welcome.
All of the familiar paths lead back to her and I scale the trellis soundlessly. I have, after all, been doing this for years. I know every nook and cranny, my fingers find where the wood is weak and nimbly move away.
She’s working a thick brush through her brown hair, sitting on her bed and looking off into the distance—where, I do not know. I would like to imagine that she is thinking of me, the way I think of her. Perhaps there’s still some part of her that remembers the last time we touched, where a hand may have brushed, or where our lips met.
“You can brush it a thousand times, but the stars are already jealous of you.” I tease as I slip down from the balcony and into her rooms.
She sits up a little straighter; her hand flies to her chest to calm her heart. She doesn’t smile. Her eyes, once like shining amethyst, are broken by tears. She curls her fingers around the locket she wears and looks away from me.
“Remei…” I go to her, I fall on my knees before her. When I try to touch her she recoils. She covers her face with her hands but it doesn’t stop the sobbing. “What’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”
“Orri.” She gives in at last and falls into me, coiling her arms around my neck. Her tears are hot on my skin, burning paths down the pale stardust. “The stars must have heard me, they knew that I needed you here.”
“They must have.” I smoothed a hand across her cheek, tucking her hair back behind her ear. “Won’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
“It’s my mother,” she blurts out all at once, the words running past her lips as freely as her tears. She mops at her face and stands, pacing while she wrings her hands. “She got sick last night. She had a little cut, a tiny thing. She called me over to look at it and I gave her a salve even though I thought it was nothing. She was worried, I thought I just had to put her at ease…”
“Where is she now?”
“In her chambers, still. It was only just this morning that she—“ She bites her lip and shakes her head, her hair goes spilling down across her shoulders. She looks to the ceiling and swallows a cry, the chamber of her throat quivering. I want nothing more than to take her into my arms and hold her, but she is already moving past me. “I didn’t know what to do, Orri. It was such a little thing. How could this happen?”
“It’s going to be all right, Remei. I’m here with you now.” I follow her down the hall, knowing my words are useless—pointless. Among the Seers we have stories for this, but it means little in this place. These people build walls to reflect how closed they are, and Remei is more open than most, but not now.
I follow her into her mother’s chambers. Sticks of cinnamon have been tied to the canopy of the bed, but it does little to keep the scent of death away. Already the body has begun to stiffen and I can see a darkening of the skin where it has laid. Remei freezes in the door but I rush in.
“Her eyes are closed,” I say.
“Out of respect—”
“If her eyes are closed how will the stars see her to take her spirit?” I can hear the frantic edge on my own voice, I’m already worrying if it has been too late, too long. I touch her forehead, her skin is cool. I open her eyes, they stare back at me already milky and white but I think there might still be enough there, it may not be too late to let her go peacefully to the stars.
“Orri!” Her voice is shrill and wounded as she flies to me, pulling me backwards.
“I…” I began, but there was no explanation. I should respect her wishes, her ways, but how could she keep her mother from seeing the stars? For the first time, I fumbled for words.
And then I watched her fall to her knees by her mother’s bedside. Nothing has ever hurt me as much as watching her cry does now.
“This never should have happened, Orri.” Her anger with me has passed, fleeting as a bird. “It must be my fault, such a little thing and now…” She shakes and even holding tight to herself she cannot contain it.
“What if I told you I could change it?” I say the words before I think them through.
“Orri, that’s not possible.” She bites her lip. She practices medicine, she heals people using salves and tonics. She knows these things, or she thinks she does.
“Do you know what the name Orri means to my people?” I sit beside her, carefully taking her hands. I wait until her sobbing has quieted enough for her to hear me. I make her look at me so she won’t have to look at her mother. “It means he who fixes things. Remei, I can fix this.”
“How?” Her voice brooks between anger, pain and hope.
“Rekki comes and collects the souls of the dead after they last see the stars. Rekki, the wolf who howls at the hollow moon. She takes them to the hillside to sing to the stars one last time before she takes them from this world. This is what my people say, this is the truth. I have seen Rekki when she came for my mother, and her mother before.”
“But if you can turn Rekki away then why didn’t you then?” She did not want to give way to hope, she was too afraid of being hope.
“There is a time for everything, Remei. My people do not mourn the dead, we celebrate that they will be among the stars.” I touch her lips, quivering. “It’s not that way for you… You shouldn’t be sad.”
“There’s no more time for questions. I need your help if you want this.” I’m standing and already know that she’ll listen, her tears have stopped and I can almost hear her heart fluttering in her chest. I pull back the curtains and push the doors open onto the balcony. “Go to the farms and bring me back a goat. I’ll need a knife as well.” I look back at her and if she hesitates, it’s only for a moment. By the time I blink she’s gone.
By the time Remei comes back—the goat bleating and clomping its hooves from down the hall—I’ve covered the balcony in blankets, lined the parapet with candles, and taken her mother out to lay beneath the stars. As it should be. Remei pauses for only a moment in the doorway, her breath caught in her throat while she tries to wrestle the goat to be still.
“Orri, I’m not sure about this…” she says, but there’s a hitch in her voice she can’t deny.
“Everything will be fine, Remei. Did you bring the knife?” I take it from her before she can even answer. Her eyes are red, her cheeks are pink where the rest of her has gone pale, but there’s something else now. There’s a light just behind her eyes.
She doesn’t look away as I take the goat down into my lap. I haven’t the time to be soothing to the goat, but I haven’t the heart to kill it in its confusion. I smooth my hand back across its head until its bleating quiets and when it stills I use the knife. A quick, clean cut across the neck. Its body jerks but my arms are tight around its neck and I hold it as its blood warms me in the cool night air. Remei makes a sound but says nothing. She touches her hand to her lips and I wonder if she’ll be sick.
“What will you do?” she asks instead, swallowing her nausea and fear.
“Fool Rekki.” I cannot fight the smile from the corners of my lips. I have always had a cleverness for stars and magic, but fooling the wolf god is something the Seers only ever spoke of. No one had done it in ages, but the thought lived on in our stories and now I was living them. “The light is passing from your mother’s eyes and even now Rekki is on the prowl, scenting what is left of her. But if we present her with something better she might leave your mother be. In time her spirit will return.”
“Orri, can you really—“
She was speaking still, but the words became a distant thrum in the back of my head as I reached for the sky.
I spoke the words, sweet and clear as water and lured two stars down from their cradle beside the moon. I breathed my life into them before I lay the goat down and put the twin stars into his eyes.
His heart beats again, if only for a moment.
It is enough. I can feel Rekki now, as close as if she possessed a body and paced across the balcony, breathing on my neck. Remei’s lips are twisted as she watches, her fingers are curled in the draperies and her mouth works wordlessly.
Remei’s mother breathes, a sick and stuttering thing that rattles in her chest and snakes into the air. The goat twists once and moves no more as the light of the stars dwindle in his eyes.
Rekki’s teeth sink into the mangy flesh, worrying at the goat, and I feel the stars leave. I feel at once at peace and then as though I’m tipping into something more, as a child falling from the shallow waters into the deep. A moment of freedom tempered by shrill fear as my stomach floats in my body and my feet feel as though they’ve left the ground.
“Orri, what’s happening?” Remei’s voice came, but I cannot see her any longer. My eyes have been blinded to all but the beast that stands before me, as sleek as a willow branch and as dark as night. She moves like a shadow slipping into my eye, consuming me from the inside.
I want to cry because Rekki is looking at me with those eyes like burning coals—I can see them so clearly now—and I know then that I have never fooled her. Steam comes from her muzzle with every panting breath. The wolf has come for me as payment for my foolishness and no goat or star will satisfy her. Somewhere, I can hear Remei crying out for me, shaking me, but it’s all muddled and I fall back from her. I reach for something and my hands catch upon the curtains, I can hear the fabric as it rips and I’m sent tumbling back into the rooms again.
Her mother is breathing again, the color is coming back to her cheeks. There is a joy in all of the madness, but there’s no room for my mind to focus on it because I need to move. I need to leave Remei, even as every part of my body yearns to stay with her until the bitter end.
Rekki scents me and her teeth make the first tentative pulls upon my flesh. I flee the room, flee even the sound of Remei’s voice and I am running down the halls, knocking over tapestries and vases that spill and break in my wake. Rekki is following on my heels and I can hear her paws now as real as any wolf, padding and playing at the great game of chase that all beasts love.
I tumble out into the streets and my magic has faded, the people see me for who I am and even though it is late they are all shouting at me in a sound that is so consuming I can think of nothing but their hatred. They have all grown old and fat on the stories of the Seers, they say we steal their children and poison their wells and now they see me here but they do not matter. The hate in their eyes is nothing compared to the nipping of teeth at my heels.
Only Rekki matters.
The vague noise of their shouting follows me out into the streets and towards home. Home where the caravan is, where the fires glow and there is no wolf. Home where there is mulled cider and familiar stories that I can slip into as a babe in a blanket.
But I leave the walls of Skadi and there is no bridge and there are no hills, only darkness. The familiar paths have worn away as if by a strong storm and even my memory cannot hold their shape anymore. One road looks as much like any other and any or none of them may lead me back home. I look to the sky for answers but there is only the sickle of the hollow moon, there are no stars that I can see, nothing left to guide me.
For the first time in my life I am lost. There are no paths and my feet do not tread familiar ground. Every step seems to unearth a stone underfoot, every corner seems to reveal a new bend in the world that I have never known. Lost without a star to lead me, I know only one thing: Rekki is following me, her growl as thick as thunder in the air and her breath as hot as fire on the back of my neck. She yearns for what was stolen from her.
I run blind into the night and I know a fleeting—perhaps foolish—thought, that if I could go back I would do it all again. For her. Somewhere in the darkness of the world she is crying, now, but her mother is back and one day she’ll be happy again. I can run for as long as my legs will carry me and when I lay down in the dark and my legs stop moving, I will shut my eyes and pretend that she still thinks of me and that she can still feel the spot where my hand last touched her, where our lips last met.
Rekki howls at the hollow moon and I run until the darkness swallows me.
Zachary Tringali is a freelancer writer living in Gainesville, Florida. His work has previously appeared in The Colored Lens (“The Right Game”), and also in the online literary magazine Vis a Tergo, which featured his short story “IMAGINE.” Zachary is represented by Carolyn Jenks of The Jenks Agency.