All and Nothing

“All and Nothing”

by Chadwick Ginther

 

The last Revener had died, and with him, Valkura’s link to the dead.

Aught crept past the guards and into her uncle’s lodge. Fires burned hot in every corner, for no shadows could be allowed to steal the Revener’s soul before it was given back to Vaehl, Lord of the Grave.

Mord had been a miserable old man Aught’s entire life, he seemed even more so now that his death had finally found him. His long hair and beard, once flaxen like her father’s, was a muddied blend of blond and grey. He’d been laid out with the riches demanded by his station; gold and furs stolen from nearby Sestill, silver and spice from faraway Khyber. When the body had been prepared, they’d left its hair loose, and it covered much of Mord like a shroud.

She’d already been searched, quite roughly, once tonight. Whenever a man dies, especially one as important as Aught’s uncle, Valkurans knew that bone thieves would be about. The men had found nothing. But then almost everything she would need would be right here.

Her uncle had a crop of vala mushrooms, so loved by the Berserks, and feared by everyone else. Aught harvested those with her hands safely in thick leather gloves. She also took some gut to make bladders. Aught hadn’t the time to sacrifice a goat, nor the wealth to trade for one.

“You don’t deserve this,” she hissed to the corpse. “Not honour. Not heaven. Not even your spirit will walk.” Aught found her father’s old tools among Mord’s and rested them atop one of her uncle’s shins. Aught knew the human body as well as any Revener, or healer. She knew where to cut and what to take. And she knew how to hide what she had done.

“When you meet Vaehl on Mistharrow, you will crawl.”

Within her lodge, Aught dug up the cloth sack that held the bones she’d stolen over the years. Some she had hidden since before her father’s death, some her brother Baran had left for her, others were much more recent. Fingers from dead men who’d crossed her, or whom she’d crossed. The bones came from enemies who would never wield a sword again, neither in this world, nor the next. But they would be waiting for her, there, on Mistharrow, the Isle of the Dead. They would try to stop her. She’d not allow it. No woman had become a Revener in living memory. Aught would succeed.

With her knife, Aught shaved down the bones. She’d had years of practice carving ornaments and jewellery, and the bones didn’t need to hold their old forms to hold their power. Aught charred them in her cook fire, the better to hide them within her raven-black hair.

Most of the vala she buried, to start a crop of her own—preparing for her success, rather than contemplating failure—but one she kept tucked in her satchel. In a pot over the fire the antidote to the mushroom’s poison simmered. The scent of the smoke carried Aught’s mind back to other times.

Aught and Baran had survived nine winters, and completed their naming ceremony. They sat across the fire from their father, Lodin, the light turning his flaxen hair a brilliant orange. It danced in the wind, casting him somewhat demonic. The rune-encarved skull resting atop his palm only added to the image, but Aught was not afraid.

“Wyrd is a god of warriors,” he said. “And the only way to join the Old Father in heaven is to die with steel in your hand.”

“But he lets them come back,” Aught said.

“Does he?” her father asked.

She nodded. “The Revenants are called from Wyrd’s table to fight for us.”

“And who summons them?”

“You,” Aught said proudly, smiling.

“Yes, me.” Her father nodded indulgently. “But the Reveners belong to Vaehl, not Wyrd. It is Vaehl who allows the warriors to return, for only a Revener can call them.” He held up a carved bone. “The dead hold the grudges of the living. And a Revener cannot allow the dead power over them. We control the dead.”

“Then why must we hide what we do?” Aught asked.

“You are not sealed to Vaehl yet,” her father said. “Every Revener before you, before each of you—” it made Aught smile, knowing her father wanted her to follow him “—risked outlawry and death for their gift.”

“But why?”

“We Valkurans are a straightforward people, child. But we need our rulers to be deeper than that.”

“Who may go to Mistharrow? Only a Revener’s child?” Aught asked. Baran had been strangely silent tonight, she thought.

“Any may go, should their name be called at the Stone, but Vaehl will only accept the worthy,” her father said. “And the worthy must know our ways.”

“But how does he choose?”

Her father smiled, cryptically. “He just knows.”

Aught started as Baran spoke up. “Who would he choose between us?”

“I left for Mistharrow with my brother, your uncle Mord,” her father began. Aught wrinkled her nose. She didn’t like her uncle, and he certainly had no love for her. She stole a glance at Baran, this didn’t seem the answer he was looking for either. “It took us the full ten days allotted, but we both returned. Vaehl will not turn away any that please him. I believe he would choose you both.”

Baran’s eyes fell further. Aught didn’t know what had crawled up his bottom, but he’d been strange as a troll lately.

“Good,” Aught said. She and Baran were twins, like their father and Uncle Mord.

Her father shook his head, sadly. “Though I hope you are nothing like Mord and I. It was not enough for him that he was chosen. He wants the line of Reveners to descend only from himself. That we were both chosen diminished the gift in his eyes, I am afraid.”

“The honour will be mine alone.” Aught could hear Torvald’s smug voice among the men gathered around the Speaking Stone.

She would have no voice there. Aught had no family; no father or brother, no husband to speak for her. She’d had to ask a lover to put forward her name. For a moment she worried that he would renege; promises under the moon look different when viewed in the sun. But Brand Ivarson was an honourable man.

She held her breath, waiting for him to speak her name. Thus far, only her cousins had been called. When all nine of Mord’s brood had been named, a contented murmur rumbled from the men. Nine was a strong number. A fortuitous number. A number of destiny. Would it stop there? But then she saw Brand bull his way through the crowd towards the Speaking Stone.

The contented murmurs turned to surprise. Brand was the ideal Valkuran. What the mainlanders thought of when they fearfully whispered their name for Aught’s people: the Dragonmen. Brand was a sea dog, a reaver. He had no interest in the affairs of the dead, beyond adding to their ranks and trying not to join them.

“Aught Lodinsdottir.” Brand didn’t whisper, didn’t hedge. He spoke her name, loudly; but it also seemed, almost sadly. As if he didn’t want her to go, as if he feared the result.

The murmurs rose to hollers.

Ten?

This could not be.

A woman?

No woman would survive the journey.

But once a name was offered to Vaehl at the Stone, it could not be unsaid.

“A woman?” Torvald yelled, repeating his followers’ cries, and breaking custom. Those named could not speak until they returned from Mistharrow. They were sealed to Vaehl. Sealed to the dead. And the dead do not speak. “Vaehl won’t want her. She’s a breeder—a bringer of life—not death.”

The crowd watched her now, as much as Brand or Torvald, with a grim revenant’s stare. She had to win them over. Her cousins had power, but weren’t well-loved. Neither was Aught.

If her cousin ignored tradition, so could she. A risk, her name being offered was breach enough, but for her to actually address her accuser at the Stone…she chose to risk it. At the least, it would be a show of strength. Of courage.

“How many bastards have you fathered, Torvald?” she asked calmly. The walls of the natural theatre surrounding the Speaking Stone magnified her voice to an echoing shout. “There is no babe at my breast.”

Torvald grimaced, obviously expecting her to wilt before him, like a flower kissed by frost.

If there was something Valkurans loved almost as much as a fight with steel, it was fight with words. Battle was battle to her people. The crowd quieted, anxious to see how the argument played out.

Torvald was the eldest of her cousins, his brothers followed his lead, and the village knew it. If Aught won this, there would be no other challenges.

Not from the living.

“No razor has touched my face,” Torvald said, stroking his long beard. Reveners did not cut their hair.

Aught tugged a braid loose, a shroud of black hair spilled over her breast and down to her waist. “And no shears have touched my head.”

“Nine is the number of the gods,” Torvald said. “Do you put yourself above them?”

“I put myself above no one. It is you who put me below everyone.”

Torvald’s jaw was set. “To send more is an insult,” he said as if the statement settled everything. The crowd murmured their assent. She was losing them. If she lost the men they would give Brand a coward’s death and Aught would envy him his suffering in hell.

“Nine may be the number of the gods, but on Mistharrow it is to Vaehl we must bend knee.”

Torvald screwed his face into a grimace. It didn’t look like he was following her line of reasoning. Good.

“It is ten days before a supplicant has been considered lost. I do not think my presence will be as ill-considered as you believe. And if the gods love the number nine so much why did they give us ten toes? Ten fingers?”

The crowd chuckled at the jest. Aught tried not to breathe a relieved sigh.

“You mock the Old Father,” Torvald grumbled. Then louder, “She mocks the Old Father. She would turn his bale eye upon us.”

“Never,” Aught said. “But the gods pay tribute to the Lord of the Grave—even Wyrd honours his brother.”

Seeing he had little support for his current argument, Torvald shifted his strategy.

“Geir will not let a woman cross the sea to Mistharrow.”

“If Geir will not allow my crossing, then why do you worry?” Aught asked.

“I don’t worry.” Torvald puffed out his chest, spit trickled into the beard he was so proud of. “You are nothing.”

“If I am nothing,” Aught said, smiling. “Then we still send nine to Mistharrow.”

The assembled crowd laughed heartily. And it was decided.

She was going.

Her cousins could scream, they could yell, beat their chests and bluster, but she was going.

Aught tied her collection of fetishes into her hair, hoping she’d found them all. Without a talisman for each grudge-bearer, she would not find her way home from Vaehl’s kingdom. She’d scraped a small life from her crops and the sea, since her father had died and Mord had stolen their home—it belonged to a Revener, he’d said. And none lived beneath their roof. But she’d spent every spare moment, and there had been few enough of those, out upon the Wyrdall, the Field of the Dead, taking what needed to be taken, doing what needed doing—little of it pleasant.

Along the muddy road to the harbour, the revenants beat their drums. Revenants, the walking dead, were a common sight in Valkura and so they did not disturb her. No one had summoned them this time, they always grew restless when a Revener died. Some seemed to have died only yesterday, others long ago had gone to bone.

Aught’s steps kept time with the drums, her back stiff, proud to walk before their unblinking stares. The bones in her hair were an anchor tying her to Valkura, but she would need the power within them. The horns of the living were a wind at her back, keeping Aught aimed at her destination.

Mistharrow.

Death had shaped Aught. Her father a Revener, her brother nearly so. Mother gone at sea, never to return. Perhaps she’d left for her birthplace in Sestill. Father may not have treated her as such, but Mother had been a slave, a fate Aught had avoided only due to Lodin’s acknowledgement of her blood. How could Father not, when he’d taken her twin brother as his son?

Her brother had died, either making the journey to Mistharrow or somewhere upon the isle itself. Perhaps it was her fault. She would learn when her feet stepped upon Mistharrow, when her grudge-bearers came for her.

Her father was gone. There was no one left but her. Her uncle had spent the last five years making the way easier for his many sons. He’d meant for his secrets to belong only to his blood.

But the gods paid little heed to mortal plans.

Aught’s cousins would be taking their father, as Aught’s brother had taken hers. They said no woman could survive the crossing to Mistharrow. Her father had wished Aught to try, but she couldn’t remember the last time a woman had even made the attempt. Not in her lifetime. She stepped into the cold waters of the North Sea and pushed her boat away from the beach.

It was at sea Aught came to know fear.

Valkura was fading from sight and Mistharrow had not yet appeared on the horizon. Gulls trailed in the wake of Aught’s boat. Their cries were an unwelcome reminder that she was still vulnerable; a reminder that if Geir steered her past Mistharrow, those gulls would feast upon more than fish.

Her shoulders strained, knifing the oars through the water as she angled her boat over choppy swells towards the mists and what they obscured. Any who lived by the sea knew it to be as treacherous and fickle in its dangers as it could be generous with its bounty.

Geir, god of sea and ocean, was no less so.

There had been no smooth path to Mistharrow since Vaehl had claimed Geir’s last mortal wife. But Aught had done all she could to prepare her way. If the sea god wished her to join his wives, he would find her no easy bride.

The first probing fingers of Vaehl’s fog stretched from the Land of the Dead, chilling her, calling for Aught to join herself to the mist; to master it or to be mastered.

A last cry from the gulls and then: silence.

The gulls had fled rather than make the crossing with her. She touched one of her fetishes, a finger bone, and whispered a prayer in Auld Valkur, and then she was into the mists.

No one knew why the geirvofa took their victims. Some said they took women to bring new wives to Geir. Others said, no, they took them out of jealousy, denying their husband the chance at a new bride; hoping Geir would remember only them. They took men because they were lonely for the touch of mortal flesh. No, they took men who served Vaehl on their husband’s orders—as retribution.

The only thing that could not be disputed was that the geirvofa took the men and women who put to sea when the mists were out. But one could not reach Mistharrow under the light of sun nor moon.

Aught felt the damp fog cling to her like a spider’s web. The mists appeared often on Valkura’s coast. Today was no different.

They would come.

But when?

At first, they could be dismissed as the wind. But there was no wind when the fog rolled out from Mistharrow.

A gentle sigh—not enough to dislodge a hair—became a rising gale, a scream, the wail of a widow beating fists against cold stone. A soul being stretched between this world and the beyond.

Aught pulled in her oars. She could not outrun the vofa and her efforts would only spur them on. The current would pull her towards Mistharrow. She could not fight them. They were ghosts, spirits. A Revener needn’t fear them. But Aught was not a Revener yet.

She covered her ears with her hands, desperately trying to block the cacophonous wails. They were dark against the mist, like a patch of heavy rain.

Around Aught the air grew cold, the damp mist froze to crust in her hair, her exhaled breaths became her entire world as the geirvofa swallowed all that remained of the day.

Aught slipped a stinking, black vala mushroom into her mouth. Its poison burned on her tongue, and her eyes teared as she forced herself to swallow the dose. Among some warriors it evoked a berserk state.

Everyone else, it killed.

Aught’s stomach roiled, she choked back her rising gorge, letting the poison do its work. If she appeared dead—or dying—the geirvofa might let her be.

The vala worked quickly, painful cramping gave way to a slackness, a drugged bliss. Everything slowed about her. The soft rolling of the waves, the cries of the geirvofa, Aught’s movements.

She had placed the antidote she’d brewed into a small bladder, but she needed to wait until this moment to tuck it into her cheek. Any sooner and she risked spitting it up. It was an effort to raise her hand to her mouth, to slide the bladder into position with her tongue. It felt odd there, compressed between her cheek and jaw. Life waiting for release, contained by a thin layer of tough gut.

Aught lay back and waited, panting. Her sweat felt as if it was freezing against her skin. There was nothing above her but a black, starless sky.

The geirvofa.

In the fever-sick of the vala mushroom Aught felt she understood the spirits. Their mindless screams had slowed, their wails were now words.

Fingers clutched the gunwales of the boat as the geirvofa leaned over Aught’s body. She saw them each separately now, as if sea foam gave highlights to their watery, indistinct forms.

Another.

Not even alive enough to drown.

There are others.

So many.

Never enough.

No one could control the geirvofa, and yet, Aught would not have been surprised if her cousins had found a way to lead the spirits right to her. Aught wondered then if her brother had made it past the spirits. Had her mother? Had Baran brought her father to Vaehl? Or did they all wait for her under the waves, food for fish and crabs? Aught felt the choking presence around her lighten as the geirvofa began to leave.

Only one spirit remained.

Aught, it spoke.

All and nothing.

Daughter.

Aught saw her mother then, in the outline of one of the geirvofa. It was as if Geir had wrapped Mother in a wet shroud, made of every evil that had ever been visited upon her. Even so changed, there was no mistaking this vofa had been anyone else.

“Mother,” Aught mouthed the word but did not hear it. Was the dampness on her cheeks tears, or a trick of the mist and sea? Aught had wept an ocean of tears in her young life.

You are dying.

“You are dead.”

Do you go to honour him? He wanted this for you.

Aught knew why she went to Mistharrow. To Vaehl. She went because she knew nothing else. Because she wanted it; needed it. Needed to be something—anything—other than what she was seen as.

Nothing.

“I go for myself.”

You could go anywhere for yourself. Why Mistharrow?

“Where else is there?”

So like him. And so much more.

“Why did you leave?”

The geirvofa took me, and let Baran by. It was the only way to help your brother.

“I’m sorry.”

Do not be, I am proud of you, daughter. Even if you’ll soon be as dead as Baran.

Aught watched as her mother dissolved into the sea. With the last conscious effort she could make, Aught burst the gut bladder, letting the antidote to the vala trickle down her throat.

The urge to retch was immediate, almost impossible to ignore. But she had to ignore it. If the potion did not blend with the vala in her belly, there would be no recovery.

Aught waited until the nausea passed; waited for the potion to do its work. The calmness brought on by the poison passed. Her heart thudded against her breast.

It is time.

Aught leaned over the side of the boat, retching. When her stomach was empty, and fierce, yellow bile was all she could spit up, she eased herself back to the center of the boat. She did not put the oars back in the water, she needed to conserve her strength. The current would take her the rest of the way to Mistharrow.

To her family.

To Vaehl.

Mist gave way to a rocky beach strewn with grains of fine black sand. Great slabs of rock were piled haphazardly, like a child’s play stones. Steam billowed from amongst fissures in the rock, making a difficult path to the smoking head of the isle, a towering volcano. Aught knew she would be the last to arrive. Valkurans liked to charge headlong into any challenge. Her cousins would have rowed away from the geirvofa, egging them on.

Vaehl didn’t allow steel upon Mistharrow. Steel belonged to Wyrd. In the clear, shallow waters near the beach, Aught could see the rusted remnants of swords and knives. Some fresher than others. Some appeared as new as the day they’d been forged.

Each supplicant was sent to Mistharrow to battle their own ghosts, not each other. But to be a Revener was a coveted position, and who’s to say what “accidents” happened at sea. An advantage to Aught, should one of the living have brought a grudge to the land of the dead. Her cousins were not known for quick thinking without a shank of metal gripped in their hands.

They had come separately to maximize their chances and safety. But Torvald, as the eldest, had claimed the honour of accompanying his father. His boat waited for her on the beach next to one other. She looked at the beached vessels, resting opposite the rotting hulks of previous supplicants’ boats. Nine had set out, but Aught had two cousins left.

Aught stepped out of her boat and dragged it towards the rocky beach. Though spring had passed with her usual promises and summer had begun flashing her golden bosom, the waters surrounding Vaehl’s island were cold as winter’s smile.

There were two sets of tracks. Signs of a struggle. Ahead, hidden among the rocks were the bare feet of one of Aught’s cousins. Blood dripped from a curled toe to spatter on stone.

Vaehl will only take the worthy. And Aught’s cousins had confused that most elementary teaching, thinking if only one remains, he must be chosen.

Fools.

Her father and uncle had gone together and both brothers had returned. Had all nine of her cousins proven worthy, all nine could have served the Lord of the Grave. An unlikely scenario, but one seemingly they hadn’t considered. Or perhaps some of them had—those would have been the first to die. Her uncle’s jealousy of her father, born only moments before him, had instilled this false belief in his own sons.

So, uncle, you’d always been so proud your sons numbered nine. The number of the gods. Did you think yourself Wyrd’s equal? Are you still proud?

Aught gave the boats a wide berth; she did not need to make a fetish from this corpse. Whatever its grudges might have been, they now belonged to Vaehl. Besides, the last of her cousins might be lurking nearby, waiting to finish her before her journey had truly started.

Steel may be forbidden here, but steel wasn’t the only means with which to kill. Aught knew that and she had her weapon.

“So, you survived the vofa.”

Torvald. Of all of her cousins to have survived, of course it had been Torvald.

“I did, cousin.”

“Pity,” he said; then smiled. “But I’ll happily give you to Vaehl myself.”

Aught saw the rusted dirk tucked into her cousin’s belt.

Torvald was balanced awkwardly over the rocks, his dead father draped over his shoulder like a skald’s cloak.

“Steel, cousin? Here?”

His grin widened. “Custom says one may not bring steel to Mistharrow. I harvested mine near the shore.”

“Another custom you have the wrong of, and Vaehl will see through your justifications.”

“We shall see.”

“Is there no one left to help you with your burden?” Aught gestured at her uncle’s corpse.

“An honour, not a burden.” Torvald grimaced. “The vofa took my brothers.”

“Not all of them.”

“Jon was always stubborn.”

“So you killed him.”

Torvald shook his head. “He killed himself when he disobeyed me.”

Mord’s eyes slowly flickered open. Torvald shifted his awkward burden, unaware.

“Did you at least allow Jon a chance?” Aught asked, keeping a surreptitious eye on Mord’s corpse. “Or did you lurk in the rocks and stab him like a coward?”

“Vaehl wants those with the courage to stand apart from custom. To rule apart from the laws.”

“Convenient you believe so now. Your brother dead at your hand. Wearing steel upon your belt on Mistharrow. Where was this belief and courage when my name was called at the stone?” Aught slapped at her chest. Torvald was smiling a wolfish grin, and she knew where his gaze had fallen. She eased her hand up and seized the fetish that weighed down her braid. Power stirred in the fetish, erupting from the rocks of Mistharrow to flow through Aught, prickling her flesh, aching for release. And release it she did, with a single whispered word. “Kinslayer.”

Mord’s dead hands clenched and unclenched. Dead fingers crept towards the hilt of Torvald’s dirk. Aught’s feet grew numb on the cool, slick rocks.

“When I return to Valkura it will be with your hands as cloak pins,” Torvald boasted. “You may be clever. But you are just a woman. I could finish you even without this.”

He gestured towards the blade at his belt, his fingers almost brushed Mord’s.

“And yet you stand there, doing nothing. You are Mord’s bearer, not his heir. You are no different than an ass before a cart.”

“Your dog, Brand Ivarson will pay too.”

“No, he won’t.” Aught shook her head. “Goodbye, cousin.”

The corpse had drawn free the length of the blade before Torvald noticed the movement. Torvald rasped a hollow breath as the knife plunged into his back. Mord rode his son’s body to the rocks, stabbing relentlessly.

Long after what a mortal body could have survived, the assault continued. Aught did not turn away, nor step back. She’d had no doubt that Uncle Mord would be among her grudge-bearers, nor that she would face him here. Aught had not shrank from him in life, she would not do so after his death.

“Your own son, Uncle?” Aught chided when Mord appeared finished.

He turned to face her, his body stained in gore. “He killed his brothers. He killed my sons. What father could honour a kinslayer?”

“I am certain your father feels the same,” Aught said.

“Vaehl will not choose you.” Mord struggled to rise, limped awkwardly—painfully—before falling to his knees. So, a revenant could feel pain. He collapsed to his belly, clawing and stabbing at the dirt. When he couldn’t rise, he rolled onto his back and moaned. “What have you done?”

Aught kicked away Mord’s blade and plucked it from the sand. She drew a bone dagger, its tip sharpened and tempered to a piercing point—the thigh bone she’d removed from her uncle’s body.

“What every Revener has done, Uncle, since Vaehl first called us. I have crippled the souls of my enemies.”

“You had no right. My body belongs to Vaehl.”

“And he will have it. All of it.”

It was a simple thing to kick the rusted dagger from Mord’s slackened grasp. He had no power against her, not when Aught held a fetish made from his body. She pressed her bone dagger against Mord’s chest.

“Goodbye, Uncle.”

With ease, the knife slid between Mord’s ribs and into his blackened, dead heart.

Aught’s bare feet trod upon the land of the dead. Crossing the sea was only the beginning. They were waiting for her. She saw the spirits walking like men. Every Valkuran man, woman and child who’d passed the veil of worlds. Every soul she’d angered. Every soul she’d hated. She saw them here, though their bodies were home in the Wyrdall.

Bone fetishes clattered against one another as Aught moved. No spirit tried to stop her. She never felt more alive than when she was among the dead. She walked through their ranks.

She had done it.

She had found the door to Vaehl’s hall.

The cave mouth spat thick, yellow smoke. Down there Vaehl dwelt in mist and dreams, snakes and terrors. It stank of corpses left in the sun. Of spilled blood. And strangely, of freshly turned earth and growing things.

She straightened her shoulders and let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. Aught had been ready for everything, everything except stepping through that door.

“Hello, Aught.”

The voice she’d most hoped and dreaded to hear.

“Hello, Baran.”

Her brother’s shade waited for her before the great, open cave mouth. Through him was the end of her journey. The smoke parted and at the spirit’s feet, she could see two bodies. Even after five years Aught could recognize them as being her father and brother. No scavengers came to Mistharrow to scatter their bones. Their fine robes and furs had rotted, but here their bodies had not. Each wore talismans and fetishes which Aught knew as well as her own.

Each seemed almost alive.

“I could not do it, sister.”

Aught nodded.

“I made it this far, I saw the true entrance to Mistharrow at the foot of the mount, and I knew—knew!—that I could not step through. Could not take Father to his reward. I tried to leave, but the mists always brought me back.”

“Once your name is spoken at the Stone, it belongs to Vaehl.”

“I knew that!” Baran yelled, his features dissolved, no longer recognizable as her brother. “You think I knew so little?”

“Of course not.”

The shade calmed, Aught’s brother returned. “I sat at Father’s side as much as you did.”

“I know, Baran.”

“How did you pass the vofa?”

“With a vala mushroom.”

Baran smiled. “Clever. I wouldn’t have tried that. I don’t know what I would have done had they come for me.”

“That was Mother’s doing.”

“You saw her?” Baran’s shade lightened briefly, almost matching the lifelike skin of his body.

“She didn’t flee to Sestill. She gave herself to Geir and the vofa that you might survive your journey.”

“So I’ve failed her too?”

“She did not think so,” Aught lied.

“But I failed all the same.”

“I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”

Baran lunged for her, his shadowy hands clawing for her throat. So close he came, that Aught choked on her breath. She knew what his touch could mean. But it never came. Baran’s hands had stopped short, a hair’s breadth from her body.

“How?” he asked.

“We shared mother’s womb. Your blood is my blood. There is no fetish or spell I need to protect me from my brother.”

Aught knelt next to her brother’s body, drawing the bloody dagger with which Mord had slain the last of his children, and placing it in Baran’s sword hand.

“You brought steel to Mistharrow?” he asked.

She shook her head, as she drew needle and thread. With deft strokes, Aught stitched the fist tight over the blade’s hilt.

“What are you doing?” Baran asked from behind her.

“You will ride the waves, Baran,” she promised. “You will be a Dragonman, even if it’s in death. I will bring you home with me.”

Her brother’s spirit shook its head sadly at the notion. “I belong to Vaehl.”

“If he doesn’t grant me this boon, I will not step through his door. There will be no Reveners in Valkura. What will Vaehl matter with no one to speak for him? Death may still be feared, but it will not be honoured.”

Baran looked at his father’s body. “I failed him in so many ways.”

“Father was patient,” Aught lied, taking her father and brother’s dead hands in hers. “He would be willing to wait for us to do this together.”

She stepped into the mist, and gave her family, and herself, to the grave.

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Chadwick Ginther is the author of Graveyard Mind (ChiZine Publications) and the Thunder Road Trilogy (Ravenstone Books). His short fiction has appeared recently in EquusThose Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Storiesand Grimdark Magazine. He lives and writes in Winnipeg.

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