Armas’ House

armas illo

Armas’ House

by Astrid S. Nielsen

“How can you ask such a thing? Just don’t go out at night, and you’ll never know what it’s like to meet a Sataru. And be thankful for that,” Marjukka said, brandishing the spoon warningly. The children surrounding her sniggered and ducked away from the splashes of sauce flying through the air. Marjukka didn’t seem to mind the rain of brown drops settling on her apron as well as her loose-fitting trousers and grey tunic; she continued, spoon raised and moving rhythmically to underscore her words:

“But if you are so foolish as to go out–don’t let them touch you, or they’ll devour your soul. And don’t accept any gifts; they’re nothing but ashes. Nothing is real.” Her grim voice fitted the frown furrowing her plump face. She wiped a hand across her forehead, which was glistening with sweat, and resumed stirring the cauldron hanging above the crackling fire of the hearth.

Lumi sat on a bench by a table a little way off the hearth, and as Marjukka stopped talking, her attention shifted to the people moving down the winding stairs spreading out like branches from the hearth room; this house had grown, like any other, in a sort of organic way, with new stores and additions being added as best they could whenever the residing family sprouted new members, needing their own space, but needing as well to stay close to the protection of the family’s ancestral spirits. The result was a rambling wooden structure rearing from the heart of the house, the grand hall called the hearth room.

Wives and husbands left their own apartments, now, as they did every evening, to gather here; children came in from whatever games they had been playing outside, filling the room with laughter.

One of the children, though, a girl of about eight years old, didn’t laugh; she followed Marjukka closely, her earnest eyes wide and dark.

Lumi couldn’t remember her name, but this was the question she always asked: “But…but what are they?”

Marjukka sighed, not really in the mood for the perpetual question, but played along anyway. The matter was too important not to. “No one knows for sure. Beings torn from heaven by lightning storms and blizzards, some say, taking their wrath over being lost out on us humans. Go ask Lumi. She knows more of these things.”

The girl turned and approached Lumi a little timidly; though Lumi was a frequent guest in this house, no one, not even the children, ever seemed quite at ease around her. They let her stay whenever she needed because they supposed her powers provided additional protection, but were always relieved to see her go. She felt sure of that.

Furtively she glanced into her pocket mirror. A face with soft features framed by braided hair the colour of snow looked back. The painted snake shaped mark just above the brows was still in perfect place, the edges unsmeared. No one would be able to tell it wasn’t real. That she wasn’t truly a Sanga, a woman of power. Though some might suspect she was a bit young to have gained the mark, no one had doubted her. Yet.

She closed the wooden mirror and slid it into the pocket of her red linen tunic.

“Please, tell me more of the Sataru–“

Lumi smiled faintly and fingered her bracelets, leather cords braided in a way that made them resemble snakeskin. “You know I can’t. My knowledge is secret.”

But the girl persisted. “Tell me about your travels then! How could you not be scared travelling all these months in the wild, being outside at night?”

Oh, she would have been, had she done that. But she had never sought out the–

“What was it like, the World Tree and the Earth Snake?”

–where the Sangas gained their powers.

“It’s a secret.” Lumi straightened and tried to put on an air of mystery.

“Can’t you tell me just a little bit?” The girl’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I want to be a Sanga too.”

“Well, take this then, and you’re well on your way.” Lumi pulled off one of her bracelets and proffered it to the girl in the hope that the gift would make her forget her questions.

“Thanks,” the girl said, but she didn’t really look as though she meant it as she fingered the bracelet, her thin eyebrows knitted into a doubtful expression. Then she hesitantly added: “Wasn’t she telling the truth, then, the Sanga who told me none of these ornaments matters? That all it takes to be a Sanga is not to be scared? That’s why I want to be one. I don’t want to be afraid anymore.”

In that moment Marjukka rang the bell, to Lumi’s relief, and even the girl joined the silence that followed, watching Marjukka bending almost gracefully to light the candles and the incense sticks surrounding the ancestral altar, a recess in the wall edged by swirly carvings. Inside it people put flowers, eagle feathers and whatever other small, beautiful things they had found, bringing in a little of that outside world, which was lost to the ancestral spirits bound to the house.

Then the chatter returned like a swarm of humming bees, and bowls of stew were passed along. When Lumi had gotten hold of hers, she withdrew to a corner and sat back against the log wall, in the shadows between the wooden pillars edging the room. Cool air drifted in from unseen cracks in the wall. But she preferred that to the air in the centre, which was thick with smoke from the hearth, steam from the stew, and incense, and sweat from too many people.

The girl seemed to have forgotten her, for now, though she would probably return with her questions as soon as her stomach was full. Lumi sipped from the bowl, burnt her tongue a bit, paused and watched the women and the men, the old and the children, laughing and scolding and teasing each other. A family. She had been part of such a thing once.

Now, she was able to live a hand-to-mouth existence, gaining shelter by posing as a Sanga, earning a bit of money by expelling spirits–which, in her case, simply meant removing the chunks of mountain rock infested with nature spirits she’d put in a given house herself.

The mountain, at the foot of which this town was situated, was one of the old living ones, still breathing fumes though rarely and faintly. The rocks that were its flesh held power. Whether it was from the spirit of the mountain or spirits drawn to the mountain, she wasn’t sure, nor did it matter. They were rarely strong enough to be of real danger, thus escaping the attention of the ancestral spirits guarding the houses from the Sataru; on the other hand they could cause plenty of annoying problems for the living inhabitants.

It was too easy. Sooner or later someone would see through her. And then she’d be left outside. Alone. In the dark.

She would have to get herself a new family, a home of her own, somehow, to be safe.

Dark would be approaching; the small window holes were covered by solid shutters. She glanced at the ancestral altar by the far wall. The sticks of incense and candles burned brightly enough. It would do. Still, as she turned her head back to the stew in front of her, she thought she saw a glimmer out of the corner of her eye, like drifting snow. She steadied her gaze, refusing to look again; she was just imagining. Of course it wasn’t real. Not here.

As she sipped from the bowl again, the stew tasted somehow even thinner. And her hands had turned clammy with sweat.

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Lumi gave a start as the door swung open–a visitor, at this hour? How strange. She narrowed her eyes as she regarded the panting man entering along with a gust of wind. He was tall. Fair hair danced about his head until the door shut behind him, and he shook the hair back to reveal a lean face and dark eyes uncertainly scanning the room. Only as they caught sight of Lumi, did they rest for a moment, and then he walked a little stiffly to the ancestral altar, almost tripping over his own rather large feet. There he bowed his head as he paid his respect and whispered something to Marjukka, which made her suspicious frown ease. His manners certainly were polished. And to judge from the immaculate midnight blue cloak and the shiny silver buckle that he wore, he just might be a rich man.

Lumi found herself smiling as the man, having regained his breath, approached her.

“Lumi Blueriver?” the man asked anxiously, fingering his sleeves.

Lumi’s smile faded, and she blinked confusedly up at the man. “How do you know me?” She hadn’t told her family name to anyone, not here.

“I’ve heard of your great powers. And I’ve come to ask your assistance myself.”

Lumi had to bite her lip not to laugh out loud. She had been called many things but never one of great powers. Her scams could hardly convince anyone she was more than a mediocre Sanga. Then she tensed; could it be he was sent from her family? She half expected the door to fling open again, a band of thugs coming to drag her home to justice. But the man just kept looking from his own feet to her, quickly averting his eyes every time she tried to meet them. He looked as though he held his breath as he awaited her answer, a reddish colour spreading across his face. “I–it’s a regular spirit problem. At my house. I can understand if you don’t have time, of course.”

Lumi relaxed a little, the smile finding its way back onto her face. Her family wouldn’t be cunning enough to send such a timid man to try to lure her home. No, if they knew her whereabouts, they would be much less subtle in their methods. She looked at the man a little closer. There was something about him, some indefinable glow. Her heartbeat quickened; could this be the chance she had been waiting for?

“I have time. And I’ll gladly help.”

She couldn’t help but feel disappointed as the man did not seem relieved. “Thank you,” he said, but seemed to tense even more. “Can you be there the day after tomorrow?”

“I can be there tomorrow, if you’d like.”

“Tomorrow is not a good day for me, I’m very busy…I’ll pick you up here, the day after tomorrow. And now I have to leave, before the dark–“

“You don’t mean to leave now, at this hour?” Marjukka injected, a startled look on her face. “Spend the night here as our guest.”

“You’re very kind,” the man said, fidgeting. “But I live very close by. I can make it if I hurry.”

“Then please take Lumi along with you now. With her along it won’t be so dangerous.”

The man looked at Lumi, as did everyone else in the room. Her hands were clenched so tight her knuckles turned white. “True, of course.” She swallowed. What else could she say? “Let’s hurry then. For your sake.”

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It was more like running than walking, the way they moved through the twilight. The sky was a deep blue, pale stars emerging on the darkest, eastern part, and the houses seemed to have turned a dark purple, silhouetted against the sky. They stood tall like trees, towers spreading out like branches from the old main houses.

The streets were empty. The sound of their steps against the wooden street paving and their increasingly heavy breathing seemed too loud in the quiet of the evening. Even the birds kept silent, as if to let the Sataru better hear their prey.

Lumi’s heart pounded. The moon was a thin crescent. In a couple of days it would be gone, rendering the Sataru at the peak of their power. But not yet. So it couldn’t be cold she felt on the breeze on this summer evening, brushing her neck from behind. She refused to believe it was. So she wouldn’t look; she kept her gaze steady, fixed on the man blundering forward until he halted at a cluster of houses at the edge of the town.

“It’s here,” he whispered. But it wasn’t any of the magnificent rearing structures at each side of the road he led her towards. Instead he made his way in between two of those, and on the other side appeared a building so small Lumi wouldn’t really call it a house. Only two stores, square, not a single addition or tower seemed to be sprouting. And it stood at the very edge of the town, literally: the deep shadows of fissures and pine woods and steep mountain slopes spread out close behind it.

“Welcome to my humble abode,” the man said, opening the door and smiling apologetically.

Upon entering she wasn’t sure that was the appropriate term, after all; though the rooms were small, like the house, and in a state of chaos, the carvings decorating the walls and the arched doorways were elaborate, small masterpieces of woodcraft, depicting not only the usual meaningless patterns, but lifelike human shapes, men and women holding hands, dancing. And the smallness of the hearth room actually made it cosy; the warm, reddish light from the hearth reached the corners effortlessly.

The furniture was thrown around as though a storm had blown through the house, but each piece was a masterpiece nevertheless: The toppled oak cupboard was polished so carefully its surface seemed shining, the massive table lying on its side next to the hearth had patterns meandering up its legs so intricate they seemed alive in the flickering light. Jade figurines and pots and pans were littered across the floor, and a cloth of golden brocade of some unknown purpose lay crumpled close to the shuttered windows. There was a faintly acrid smell in the air. Still, she thought that if some of the clutter was cleared, this could make a pleasant home.

She glanced at the man, who was standing there, looking somehow helpless, and she flushed as she got a sudden urge to go hug him. She would like very much, she thought, to make this place her home. With everything that involved. But how to?

She swallowed and then cocked her head, looking up at the man from under her eyelashes, the way she’d sometimes seen other young women look at their suitors, and flushed even more as she did so. “I never got your name.” Was she doing it right?

“Oh, I’m sorry. With everything that’s going on I sometimes get a little–” He cleared his throat. “Armas–” he hesitated a moment. “Armas Doublethread.” He looked intently at Lumi and smiled gloomily as she gave no sign of recognising the name.

“Very pleased to meet you.” Lumi reached out her hand, planning on placing it lightly on his arm, but he simply extended his own and grabbed hers in a formal, awkward handshake. She wasn’t doing it right!

“I–I’m glad you would help.” He gave a short, strained laugh and made a gesture at the chaos surrounding them. “As you can see, it is very much needed.”

Before Lumi could make an answer, what she had taken for a heap of laundry by the hearth yawned and stretched and got to its feet and appeared to be an old woman hobbling up to Armas, who quickly bowed his head, as did Lumi, in respect to the soon-to-be spirit.

“You’re late,” the old woman said in a reedy voice. Her skin seemed fragile like her voice, sallow, rippled by wrinkles. Her eyes were barely visible beneath the heavy eyelids, and though they were turned in the direction of Armas seemed to be staring past him. She smiled faintly as Armas reached into the pouch at his girdle and held forward a small handful of gold, glittering in the light of the hearth. He let it drop into the hand of the old woman.

“I’m sorry, Oili,” he said. “Please, don’t leave. I meant no disrespect. I won’t be late again.”

“We’ll see.” Oili hefted the gold. “Rauha wasn’t pleased when she came by earlier.” Then she hobbled back to her nest by the hearth, curled up on the blankets and went back to sleep.

“Your grandmother?” enquired Lumi.

“Not exactly.” Armas smiled wryly.

“Certainly not your mother or your lover. Who then?” The exchange had been too strange for Lumi not to pry.

“No one to me; she stays here for a fee,” Armas whispered slowly, holding her gaze.

Lumi frowned; why would he pay an old stranger to stay?

Unless…

Feeling slightly dizzy, she let her eyes scan the room; it was true, she just hadn’t noticed because of the mess; there was no ancestral shrine. And she realised with a start what it was she had smelt when she first entered. It was tar, used to seal new wooden walls. This was a new house. Armas had built his own home, away from his family. And now he tried to make an old woman live her last days here, so that when she died, her spirit would be protecting his house. There was no other to do so.

“I do hope this won’t make you change your mind about helping me,” Armas said, a sudden light tone in his voice.

“It won’t,” she said to her own surprise. She couldn’t explain it; no ancestral spirits meant the walls provided no protection from the Sataru. Even a Sanga would not be blamed for wanting to leave. Yet she did not want to; it was crazy, she didn’t know him, but for Armas and his house, she would take her chances. And perhaps it wasn’t even that stupid–the way Oili looked it would be safe soon enough. “I’ll stay.”

“Oh,” Armas said, his shoulders sagging. “I’m glad.” The strained note in his voice Lumi would have taken for disappointment if it hadn’t been for the way he looked at her the moment after. It was only a brief glance, but there was warmth in his eyes before he looked down and his hair fell in front of them. Then his voice turned matter-of-factly:

“Do you want something to eat, or anything else? I’m sure we had some bread here yesterday–the spirit problem, worry about it tomorrow.” Armas swirled and tried without luck to locate the bread.

“No thanks, I’m fine. I had time to finish most of my meal before you–“

“Oh, that’s true,” Armas turned, bumping an elbow against a wooden cat figurine–one of the last items still in place on a sideboard strangely still standing–sending it to the floor. As he bent to pick it up, he exclaimed something sounding almost triumphantly, reached under the sideboard and pulled out a loaf of bread.

“In case you change your mind…” He brushed off the most of the fluff and placed the bread on the sideboard. It had a slight greenish colour.

“I don’t think I will, but thanks for the offer.”

“You’re welcome.”

Awkward silence. Armas opened his mouth as though he were about to say something, but changed his mind in the last moment.

“So–does anyone else live here?” Lumi ventured.

Armas shook his head. No wife then; she suppressed a smile.

“How come you live here– without your family, I mean?” Lumi spoke softly, and stepped closer, looking up into his eyes.

But instead of confiding in her, Armas stepped back, a sheen in his eyes. “It’s getting late! Hadn’t noticed–“

It wasn’t really, not too late for sitting by the hearth, talking, but Armas’ movements were hasty, exaggerated, clumsy again as he went and opened a door to one of the chambers adjacent to the hearth room, and Lumi let it go.

“You can sleep in here–it’s usually relatively peaceful.” The room he ushered her into contained only a reed matt and a blanket–very little for the spirits to throw around.

“I sleep upstairs. And there’s no problem on that floor at all. So there’s no need for you to go up there.” He practically fled up the stairs, leaving Lumi alone to contemplate how bad she was at striking up a conversation.

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Lumi pulled the blanket closer around her. Outside, the wind was picking up, howling through the mountain fissures, and the sound made her think of drifting snow and blizzards. She shivered. The sounds coming from the hearth room were only slightly less unnerving; bumping and scratching and screeching noises. She wondered how Oili could sleep in there at all; but the old ones were always more at ease around the spirits. Perhaps because they were to join them soon.

She turned, tried to close her eyes, but they insisted on gazing blindly into the darkness of the room. Perhaps it was stupid to try to win Armas’ heart–what did she know, anyway, of such things?

At the time when everyone thought that was what she should be dreaming of, she wanted nothing of it. The man had been her grandmothers’ choice. He was a sturdy farmer with dull eyes framed by bushy brows. She didn’t know him, but she instantly disliked him. All she could think of were the calloused hands of the other farmers’ wives she’d met and the monotony of the fields. So exposed the farms stood, out there in the open. And there was something else, something she couldn’t quite put her finger to. She just didn’t want to marry him.

But the pledges between the families were made with no regard to her protests. And too soon the day of the wedding came. The first snow was gently falling from the sky as she watched the colourful procession of her family wind away in between the trees. The children were singing. She didn’t notice how chilly the wind was until their voices faded. Only then did she close the door. And then she did the unthinkable: she locked and blocked it.

Her family would spend a day and a night celebrating in his family’s house. He was supposed to come here, spend the day and the night here, alone with her, and they would return together as wedded to live in his family’s house. She would have none of it. He could return alone. Oh, what an outrage there would be, but she could do nothing else.

She took off the red tunic woven for her wedding, put on her brown everyday one. The wooden mirror and the jar of red cinnabar paste that had been laid out for her to adorn herself with, she did not touch.

The day seemed to stretch on forever; there was no roaming the woods or fishing in the river this day; she didn’t dare in case she met him there. She would do nothing wifely like spin or weave. So she whittled, her fingers clenching the knife until they were sore. She hummed as she worked, and the wind began to howl, and as the light waned she thought she’d drowned out the knocking that must have sounded sometime during the day. She began to relax.

Then a knocking did sound, or more like a desperate hammering at the door. She gave a start, dropped the knife and the piece of wood she was turning into woodchips. The hammering continued. Slowly she got to her feet, approached the door. There, she found herself unable to move, her heart beating as unsteadily as the pounding on the door. Why was he so late? There was no way he could return to his own home before dark, and so she had no choice but to let him in. Still, she hesitated, shivering with cold all of a sudden.

Silence. Even the wind dropped for a moment.

Oh, what was she doing!

She flung the beam blocking the door aside, turned the key and pulled the door open.

The world roared at her, a white shimmer in the dusk, an icy breath stinging her skin. And something solid. There was a shape there, turning ever so slowly in the flurry of snow, and fixing crystalline eyes on her. She couldn’t breathe this cold air, she couldn’t close her eyes though for all of the world she wished to as she sank down on her knees; Sataru was the name of the looming shape, she knew by the way it’s eyes made her heart freeze. And the smaller shape crouching beside it was the shape of a man.

Lumi curled up under the blanket, but there was no warmth to be found. She had killed a man. She hadn’t even known him, but she had killed him.

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In the hearth room everything had shifted; not that Lumi was sure exactly how it was before, but the clutter formed different patterns on the floor. Only Oili and her blankets seemed to have been left untouched, and the old woman sat watching Armas pull at the massive table. As he noticed Lumi, he gave a start, and the table slid out of his hands, lay toppled on the floor again.

“Good morning.” He kicked the table with a defeated motion. If the dark circles beneath his eyes were any guideline, he’d gotten as little sleep as her.

“Good morning.” Lumi said, stifling a yawn and trying to blink the bleariness away from her eyes.

“I found a sausage–” He made a gesture at the dried-up crinkled thing on the floor next to the table, then furrowed his brows, eyes searching. “But the bread–” His voice trailed off.

“I’m okay, I’m not usually very hungry in the morning.”

“I could make some tea…”

She waited a bit, but it seemed that indeed he could not; he just stood frozen, gazing at the clutter with glazed eyes.

“I don’t really like tea in the morning.”

“Oh, good then that I didn’t have time to make some!” He laughed, and then reached into the pouch at his girdle. “Here, go buy some food when you get hungry.”

Lumi had never before held the weight of such a sum of gold as he placed in her hand. With it she could live for years.

Armas’ mouth formed a word, but no sound came. He looked at her intently, pointed towards the front door.

“What?”

He shook his head, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.

“I just…excuse me, I have business to attend to.” With a stiff smile and stiff movements he hurried out the door.

Lumi felt cold as she let the handful of gold slide into her pocket. How strange it all was, and what a strange man. His confused behaviour was much like the house itself, filled with contradictory bits thrown randomly around, but just like the house there was something there that could be fine, if cleared a bit. And there was something else, a flutter at the edge her mind, like a forgotten dream. She shook her head, but the uneasy feeling kept prickling there. A whisper she could almost hear.

What had he been trying to tell her? She began pacing the winding paths between the heaps of clutter. There was a cauldron, her own reflection moving across its surface as she passed it; it certainly had never hung above the hearth. A kitchen knife and a set of brazen candlesticks just as shiny. Tapers that had never been touched by fire. Not a single item could she see that seemed to have ever been used, or gotten as much as a scratch during the turbulent nights. How was that even possible?

Not everything, though. She bent and picked up a stone. A dark grey volcanic lump that looked as though it had been brought in from the mountainside. Dirt was clinging to it. A spirit infested thing like the ones she had used herself so many times. On closer inspection they were everywhere, spread out in such amounts it couldn’t be accidental; the spirit problem, someone was creating it on purpose, anyone could see as much.

Lumi looked up, and there was Oili gazing at her, or past her; it was hard to tell exactly what was the focus of the shadowy cracks that were Oili’s eyes. Perhaps nothing at all. The old woman smiled placidly. Or was it mockingly?

Did Armas not dare speak out loud for fear that Oili might hear?

“So–how long have you been staying here?” Lumi said, for lack of anything better to say. Oili didn’t respond.

Lumi shrugged and moved about a little, picked up a couple of more stones, but every time she looked up Oili was still staring in her direction, sitting there on her blankets, the only thing in its right place, as if she were already the spirit guarding this house. A cold shiver ran down Lumi’s spine.

The embers of the hearth were dying glows; the light that filled the room, making everything look cold and grey, was coming through the windows, from a heavy grey sky. Normally Lumi would avoid venturing out under such a sky; if rain fell, her mark would soon be washed away. But under Oili’s gaze, she felt she needed the air. And besides, she would need to eat.

Lumi dropped the stones she’d picked up, turned and strode out the front door.

A drizzle did fill the air, just enough to make it slightly hazy and give the sensation of something moist meeting the skin.

As she gazed back, the house seemed…angry, she thought. Perhaps because of the closed shutters on the second floor–everyone else let the light in whenever they could, even this grey haze. It gave the compact structure a pinched look. Somehow she felt lighter, warmer even, leaving it behind.

She kept her head lowered to keep her mark dry, and it was a town of slippery wooden paving and busy feet that drifted past her as she made her way to the centre where bakers and butchers kept their shops.

A single of her gold coins–so shiny it was, as though it had never been used before–bought her an ample meal.

She wandered the streets for a while, pondering what to do.

It seemed as though Armas didn’t want her to be there–though he had asked her to come in the first place. She didn’t know what to make of it, so she shook her head, trying to think of something else. The spirit problem–though no Sanga, she knew well what to do; she had often caused something of the kind herself, though on a smaller scale. It gave her some comfort; at least she could not fail.

She turned between two grand houses, walked onto the path leading to Armas’ house. It was then she saw him. Such a small figure he seemed, sitting at the edge of the fissure a little way off the house, and almost merging with the grey of the sky and the mountainside. She approached him, for some reason stepping carefully and holding back her breath. A knot began forming in her stomach. His shoulders were shivering, and his head rested in his hands; he was crying.

She halted. Why was he sitting here crying? Back against the town, facing the wild–the rugged mountain, the jagged pinewoods to his right, the foothills and the vast plains below, lost in the haze, to his left. On a brighter day he could have been gazing at the misty contour on the eastern horizon that was said to be the World Tree. But not this day; the rain was getting heavier, painting the mist the same grey as everything else. And the wind moaned, of which she was glad, or he would have surely heard her heartbeat. She stood there frozen for a while. If he noticed her, he gave no sign. She reached out her hand, could almost touch him, then withdrew it and backed away; a thought had formed in her head, and it stayed there as she went back to the house, and the hours passed, and he did not return.

The thought was: what if this important business that had drawn him away this morning, was the business of avoiding her.

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What did she care anyway? Even though her plan turned out to be foolish, this was still a good job. The gold weighing down her pocket was more than she could have otherwise earned in years. And more would most likely follow when she was done. It was just…the embarrassment. Trying to touch him, giving him flirty looks–as if she knew how to do such things! She must have looked a complete fool. No wonder he would rather stay out in the rain than be here with her!

It doesn’t matter. Take a deep breath. It’s nothing but dust making my eyes water.

Bend down and pick up those stones. Empty the basket out at the fissure and fill it again.

Strange how such a small thing can harbour such power. Where do they stay, the spirits? She regarded the stone. This one was smooth and dark, little specks of white sprinkled across the surface, making it look like a dull starry sky. She clenched it tight, then let it go.

Drops of rain and sweat trickled down her forehead. She wiped her hand across it. Her mark would be gone. She didn’t care.

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“So good to see you up and about!” A woman walked in with an air as though she owned the house. Her smile was broad, and her eyes fixed on Lumi as she spoke. Lumi set down the basket and straightened.

“You do look a bit pale, though. Perhaps it’s a bit too early for you to be exerting yourself?” the woman continued. She was wearing an elaborately embroidered purple tunic and a matching scarf wrapped about her graying hair. A bit washed-out, but they had certainly been expensive, once. As she approached, a whiff of a heavy perfume followed, of the cheap kind, which always left Lumi with a slight headache.

“It’s not early.” Lumi glanced out the window. The hazy daylight had the deepness, now, of approaching twilight. “And I’m not exerting myself.” The last, perhaps, wasn’t true, or she wouldn’t have felt these beads of sweat making their way from her hairline.

“You should take it easy, dear, after such a long illness.” The woman reached out and brushed Lumi’s forehead. Her hand was hot, searing, and Lumi recoiled.

“No fever–but you’re cold like the grave. I don’t think you’re well quite yet, dear.” The woman spoke in such a sugar-coated voice, as though she were addressing a child.

“I haven’t been ill,” Lumi protested, finding it hard to keep the sneer out of her voice. Who was this woman, and what was she going on about?

“If you say so, dear–“

“I do say so. Now excuse me, I have work to do.”

“My, my. I only meant to help.” The woman’s smile faded into a sour line as she turned on her heels and approached Oili instead.

“Mother,” she said. “What have you got for me today?”

Oili, who had seemed asleep, apparently wasn’t: she got to her feet with surprising ease and handed the gold, which Armas had given her yesterday, to the woman. She had to be the one named Rauha, the one Oili had mentioned yesterday, Lumi realised.

“This is what he owed me for yesterday. Is he late today again?”

Oili didn’t answer, she just did her placid smile. Rauha glanced out the window, frowning; the light was fading too fast. If she was to return to somewhere safely, she couldn’t wait here for long. Then she glanced at Lumi, frowning even more. Why that look? Lumi bent again, pretending to focus intently on the heap of clutter in front of her. But out of the corner of her eye, she did glimpse Rauha handing a heavy looking satchel to Oili.

“I do wish you would take it easy and rest some more,” Rauha said as she passed Lumi, again in the sugar-coated voice. Then she was gone, and Lumi found it a little easier to breathe.

ice crystal button

Lumi bit her lip. It was time to close the shutters; yet, Armas hadn’t returned. She put a hand against the smooth wood, gazed out into the gloom. She would let them be a little while longer, just in case the light made it easier for him to find his way. She shivered and turned, moved away from the window towards the hearth, though it wouldn’t make her feel any less cold, she knew by now. Oili, who had been scurrying about behind her, froze, clutching the half empty satchel. The stone she’d last dropped rolled across the floor and crashed with a clank into a brazen cauldron. Oili smiled placidly, took on her faraway look.

It was all too obvious. Just because my back is turned, I haven’t lost my ears, Lumi thought, and smiled at the inept way in which the scheme was performed. But out loud she said nothing. When Armas returned, she would relate it all to him, if not earning his fondness, then, perhaps, his respect. And if he didn’t return–she shook her head to get rid of the thought.

Then he did. His wet hair plastered to his head, and his face glistened from a film of tiny raindrops. A smell of damp wool accompanied him, and his clothes looked dark and heavy. As did his eyes. He smiled wanly at Lumi. Then moved past her, towards the stairs. Lumi raised her eyebrows; not a word.

“Welcome home. Busy day?”

He turned, slowly, one foot up the stairs. “Yes. Forgive me, I–“

“I’ve been busy too. And learned something you ought to know.” She wet her lips and stepped closer, and in a whispering voice began, holding forward a stone she’d picked up from the floor: “These are littered all over the place. Volcanic stones. From the mountain. Where spirits inhabit all.” She tried to look him intently in the eye, but he averted his gaze.

“That’s not good, I suppose,” he muttered.

“No, it’s not! And what’s worse: I’ve been cleaning them out all day, but it’s no use–Oili just spreads out new ones. And not very discreetly. She gets them from Rauha, so I suppose–“

He shrugged.

“Look, whatever you think of me, you can’t let them do this to you!” Now she raised her voice.

“I can and I will!” For a moment he too spoke loudly. Then a shadow passed across his face, and his voice dropped to a murmur. “Don’t you see? They only do what they think is necessary to keep me so scared I’m willing to pay whatever they ask to keep Oili around. But I don’t mind. Please don’t say anything about it. I don’t want to upset them…I don’t want them to leave…” His gaze steadied, meeting hers, but with such a sad look.

For a moment she stood dumbfounded. This was absurd! “Then why did you bring me here in the first place? How am I supposed to help if you won’t let me?”

Not a sound came, but his mouth formed a word. Leave, it could be. He looked at her determinedly, shifted his gaze just as determinedly to the front door. Then he turned and continued up the stairs.

“If you want me to leave, that’s fine! Just say so out loud!”

He gave a start, froze, and looked back at her over his shoulder, wide-eyed, pale. Scared? “I don’t want you to leave!” he enunciated loudly. “I’m so very glad you’re here!” But all the while he shook his head. And then he fled up the stairs.

She slammed her hand against the banisters. What was this charade? If this was how it was gonna be, he could keep his gold and sort out this mess by himself!

Lumi scowled at Oili as she strode past her. She just sat there on her blanket, looking placid as ever. How much had she heard? It didn’t matter. You can stare all you want, you old hag. I have no part in this.

At the front door she halted, hand hovering over the iron wrought handle.

He had looked scared.

She clenched her hands. Something was wrong. Something was terribly wrong. She didn’t know what. But if she left him now, she would be leaving another man in the snow.

She took a deep breath. And one more.

Then she turned and found herself walking back across the room. And then climbing the stairs.

ice crystal button

The wooden steps creaked beneath her feet. Her heart was such an uneasy lump, beating loudly in her chest. And this air was so cold to breathe–had it been so all along?

For a moment she stood swaying on the landing, lightheaded all of a sudden, and blinking while her eyes adjusted to the gloom; the only light was the faint reddish flicker from the hearth making its way from the lower floor. Her shadow danced and was lost in the shades.

She could make out the shapes of doors, after a little while, and the sound of a soft voice, crooning words indistinguishable, like a sough of wind. She walked towards it. It came from behind this door, she felt it like a cold draft though the air was stale and still.

She hesitated, letting her hand rest on the smooth surface of the door. Then she pushed gingerly. It gave way without sound.

“You’re a day early. But it’ll do,” said the soft voice.

Lumi couldn’t speak; she’d lost her breath, face-to-face with those crystalline eyes of her nightmares. They were smouldering, a set of ice blue embers illumining features too familiar; it was her own. She might as well be looking into a mirror, if not for the eyes. And the hair, she noticed, her stomach twisting. The hair was a jet black halo. Like her own had used to be. When was that? When had her hair turned white? How could she have forgotten, until this moment? Her thoughts shattered like glass, only one coherent clinging to her mind: she should run.

But there was someone beside the Sataru mirror image. A shape crouching on the floor, hiding his head in his hands.

She clenched her jaw, as another thought made itself heard: She would not leave another man in the snow. Not Armas.

This thought left a feeling clear and cold, her heartbeat easy, steady. Come what may come. She could never outrun this moment; she had tried to once before. She would not leave him.

She took one step forward.

The eyes of the Sataru flickered.

Armas lifted his head and looked up at Lumi. His face was lost in shadows, eyes a dark sheen. A sob escaped him.

“Are you not happy, my love?” The Sataru turned with a fluid movement like a gently winding stream. There was a hurt note in its husky voice.

Armas faintly shook his head.

 “Why? Is she not your love? Did you not wish me to become her? Who, then, will you have me be? Who will you have us be?”

Armas didn’t speak, just stared at Lumi.

“It is her. We will be happy,” the Sataru stated, and turned to face Lumi again.

“You held something back from me, when last we met. I need it now. So we can be happy.”

“I tried to warn you, Lumi,” Armas gasped, “but I can’t speak what it won’t let me. You…must…”

“Run? She will not. Because of this thing she held back from me. This love for you she still carries.”

“I never–” For some reason the protest crumbled on Lumi’s tongue.

“You don’t remember, because that memory is what I took. But you held the feeling back.” The Sataru shook its head reproachfully.

“I’m so sorry I brought you here.” Armas scrambled to his feet. “But I couldn’t disobey. And I was so glad to see you.”

“I don’t remember–“

He lunged towards her, and was standing so close, in the next instant, she could feel his warm breath as the words spilled out of him: “You were mine, and I was yours. But our elders didn’t care about what we said, what we felt. I came to save you that night of your wedding, thought if I came by late enough you would have to let me in, ruining the whole thing. But you never opened the door–not until–“

“I didn’t know it was you!” Lumi felt the ground give way beneath her feet. It had been Armas out there in the snow. Her husband to be had long since done his knocking and left. The memory was almost there, like a bittersweet taste lingering on her tongue. Armas grasped her hands. His were damp, shaking slightly.

“Enough,” the Sataru screeched. It never touched Armas, merely moved its hand, but Armas was flung aside like a leaf caught by a gust of wind, and as the Sataru clenched its hand, he crumpled up like a paper ball, and lay on the floor, still. Silent. Lumi felt her throat swell, and she would have run to him but for the Sataru’s voice:

“I am lost, and you should give me this feeling.” It was soft, coaxing and right next to her though she hadn’t seen the Sataru move. “I just wish to make my home here in this world.”

Lumi turned her head. The Sataru’s features, her mirror image, seemed to be melting, becoming translucent, distorted sketches above an endless sea of ice, its breath reaching into her like icy fingers.

She remembered that feeling.

She caught her breath; there had been a flicker in the Sataru’s eyes before, of uncertainty, she felt sure, when she had thought only of Armas, leaving no room for her fear.

She saw the same flicker now as she stood her ground, clinging onto her tranquillity, the invisible fingers prying.

Could it be…it was through cracks of fear it could enter the mind and the heart? Perhaps that was what the little girl had meant, when she had talked about not being scared.

Lumi tried to keep her breath even, fixing her eyes on Armas’ curled up shape.

It could be; the fingers were becoming frantic–if she could just keep–

Armas opened his eyes. Lumi tried to meet them, hold them, but they shifted to the Sataru, became wide and fearful:

“I know what I will have us become!” he cried hoarsely. “Let us be birds–that way we can be close to your home in the sky!”

“Armas, no!” Lumi gasped, but the Sataru spun around, cutting Lumi’s heart as it retracted invisible claws of ice. And it was done.

Two ravens black as night, the one with shining blue crystalline eyes, fluttered past her, their flapping wings sending cold air brushing her skin.

Out the room, down the stairs they swooped, and she ran after, her feet stepping not on solid wood, but something soft and insubstantial and then nothing at all. She stumbled through empty air, hit the ground and lost her breath, and all around her were dark flecks.

Swirly darkness fell softly on her skin. Her eyes stung. And when she was able to breathe again, her mouth filled with dust tasting like…

Ashes.

Armas’ house had turned to ashes. And now the wind carried it off, and she was lying here out in the open. No ravens in sight.

Her eyes watered from more than the ash. For a time she just lay there, her vision slowly clearing. Close by, Oili was coughing, scrambling to her feet and then trudging towards one of the nearby houses. The very same from which a dismal cry sounded the next instant. It could be Rauha’s voice. Lumi reached into her pocket and felt only soft ashes; no gold weighing it down. Slowly she got to her feet.

She had had a love and lost him. Found him again. And lost him again. To a Sataru.

Next time she found him, she would be stronger.

There was warmth on the breeze, and the rain had ceased. Clouds scudded across the sky. In the distance, far across the plains below the foothills, she could glimpse a pillar of something slightly paler than the rest of the gloomy world; the mist shrouding the World Tree. She breathed in deeply as she stepped onto the path leading down the hills. She would have no fear.

_______________


Astrid S. Nielsen is a chartered surveyor, born in 1982 and living in Aalborg, Denmark, with her husband. A great deal of her spare time is spend writing fantasy short stories. Her stories have appeared in Quantum Muse and Bewildering Stories.

 

 

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