When one was born with shadow magic, the Shadow immediately sensed them, and Loki felt her, wriggling there in the darkness.
Her tiny fingers reached out, and blood rushed her head as she squealed. Her emotions, unformed and raw, blinked through Loki’s brain.
Hunger panged in her belly. Her cries burned her lungs. And the Shadow felt it all.
Why wouldn’t anyone pick her up? Why didn’t anyone answer her cries?
The Shadow knew the reason. He’d been afflicted with such a past. “Damn mothers,” he seethed.
His breath turned to smoke on his exhale. It expanded and wound downward creating a veil of fog around his black leather boots and inky silk trousers, over his expertly woven rugs and rocky cavern floors. His fists balled in response to the child’s cries.
Still, no one comforted her.
He knew the lack of a mother’s touch all too well. Mothers were vile creatures, rejecting their children for any seeming lack. Those who didn’t reflect their mother’s vision for them were deemed unworthy. Abandoned. Or worse, punished, like him.
Loki closed his eyes. Some called those eyes black and unfathomable. Some called them smoke and mirrors. Some called them the depth of Muspell itself. But he knew the truth. His eyes were the seat of his power. They let him see beyond, into other lands, the very places he wasn’t allowed to visit. They let him see into others’ minds, and further yet, into their desires. As he squirmed into their thoughts, he found their truths. Humans were selfish, base creations, driven by their will to survive, their wants for betterment, by their self-centered nature. They always chose themselves over another.
Usually, when he climbed into the mind of another, there were no surprises. But now, inside this little one’s head, climbing into the abyss of fear, of her separation from comfort and warmth, he felt...
The ability to shadowwalk.
She would see beyond what was in plain sight. And deeper still, she would see into hearts and minds and souls.
It was that ability which had gained him the knowledge of mankind over thousands of years, and the reason for his indifference to humanity. Let them be pawns. Let them be sacrifices in his war. They brought it on themselves. They were not innocent.
Except for the children. The unwanted ones. The rejected ones. The ones born different, unlike their siblings or parents.
Loki rifled through the fright inside her, burrowing deeper into her mind’s recesses, and found a surprising core of warmth. Of goodness. Of potential. All of a sudden, she felt familiar. Where had he sensed such light, such purity before?
Trigg cawed, his rough voice cutting through the Shadow’s examination.
“Shh, Trigg. Let me feel her.”
The raven quieted except the slight shift and click of his claws on his perch. The Shadow stretched out his arms, palms upward. The wetness of the cool mist surrounded him like a balm. With a slight smile stretching his lips, Loki slipped further into her consciousness.
The child was wide open. Easily accessible. He didn’t even worm his way in but rushed with a glorious blast. Gooseflesh rose on his arms, neck, and back. At this tender age, children had no defenses, no preconceptions about him. They were pliable, bendable, like green wood, and prime for his use.
“Ah...” Loki moaned, reveling in her warmth, that inkling of light inside her.
“Fools, can’t they see the beauty in her?” Even now, as she lay there, blood pumping through her veins, air squeezing violently from her lungs from her unanswered screams, she was nothing short of perfection to him.
But Mothers. Mothers were selfish creatures that could turn from you in a heartbeat. He knew. He had been waiting for ages to set that wrong right.
Trigg clucked again.
Loki snapped open his eyes and strode to his colossal raven, unarguably the largest in the lands and the father of all ravens who came after. He was Loki’s beloved creation, for he made him from the magic that sprung from the deep well of Mirmir before his insufferable Father blocked him from the power for eternity. Trigg’s age showed, his feathers dull, his eyes small for the size of his head. The grandfather of ravens flapped his ragged-feathered wings, their span wider than his master’s outstretched arms.
“My beautiful, beautiful, boy.” Loki cooed. He offered his arm.
Trigg arthritically hopped onto his white silk shirt and scaled his way up to sit on his master’s shoulder, leaving a wake of rips in the fine fabric with his sharp-as-blades talons.
Loki didn’t mind. He never did. He would simply compel another weaver for more shirts of fine white silk. Besides, who wouldn’t revel in the beauty of his magnificent creation?
Humans. That’s who.
Impulsive. Hedonistic. Judgmental humans.
They scorn what they don’t understand.
And though his mother was not human, he imagined she endowed most of them, her creations, with such weaknesses.
Beetles skittered over his boots, and he smiled. Gorgeous, black, sleek seekers in the night. How intricate each leg, each joint, each shell! How shiny and splendid!
Loki turned with Trigg riding his shoulder and flapping his monstrous wings to keep his balance, boring into Loki’s skin as he crossed his chambers. Though located in the depths of Muspell, a world between worlds, a prison created by his hateful mother and father, Loki’s realm was finer than any in all the lands. It was suited for royals. Over the eons of his entrapment, he used his power to wiggle into the minds of humans and compel them to do his bidding. They were so easily accessed by delivering their desires that he soon amassed a fortune and the comfort of kings. But he knew that fortune didn’t matter.
Only power mattered.
Loki surveyed the scenery in the window to the worlds, his magical viewing portal to all of the lands. He flicked his wrist to change the panorama to another location. The gray mist swirled and complied, revealing landscape after landscape until he settled on one—one he’d seen before, some years ago. How long? His memories ran on for millennia so that he couldn’t recall. Not too long, though. Not too far back. Gooseflesh rose on his skin, and he smiled.
A weathered longhouse, some outbuildings, a stretch of pasture, all sat unknowingly under a full moon. These ignorant Scandians with their ludicrous ideas about worship called it the Goddess Moon, but it didn’t matter.
The child’s sweet warmth rumbled over him as soon as he spotted the small farm, so strongly the newness of her scent wafted through the smoky window, and he inhaled her perfume.
“She’s here,” he announced to Trigg.
Trigg cawed on his shoulder, a bombastic noise that would have any other man protecting his eardrums from damage.
“Not tonight, my darling.”
Trigg bobbed and clucked.
“I know you’re eager to hunt, but this one is mine. Time I make it so.”
The gargantuan raven flapped his tired wings and flew grudgingly back to his perch. He fluffed his shoddy feathers. He cocked his head and watched, beady black eyes pinned on his master.
Smoke poured from Loki’s mouth. Rivers of the fog ran over his silken shirt and trousers, wrapping around his sinewy torso, turning into tendrils as the mist continued to pour out of him. The cool, damp fog sent a pleasant shiver throughout his body. He sighed at the sensation, wanting more. Wanting it to fill him. Overtake him.
The mist crawled up the window to the other worlds and exited on the other side, paces from the weathered longhouse sitting beneath the brilliant luminosity of the low hung moon. His moon. For it lit his way to his prey. Allowed him to see. Loki watched his fog-filled tendrils slither across the ground, seeking the energy of the one touched with the Shadow’s magic.
Ginna Hummeldottir stood over the threshold to her family’s longhouse. An unnatural fog snaked over the path outside. They called the haze Loki’s Breath, a mist as gray as rocks and as slick as an eel—an inky, ominous phenomenon that coiled and churned as if the Dark Lord himself writhed within. Ginna edged her foot outside. The mist undulated. Foggy tentacles twisted every which way as if searching.
“Make haste, child,” whispered Mama in Ginna’s ear. “It looks like Loki himself is upon us tonight.”
“Hush, woman!” said Father. He craned his neck with the considerable effort one requires when they are old and worn, and leaned back in his chair to get a better view of the mist forming outside. His tired eyes narrowed. “Don’t yah speak the dark god’s name, lest he cast his gaze upon us. Besides, yah can’t send the child out alone. Not in that haze. The last time we saw such a—”
“Hush, Hummel,” scolded Mama. She flashed him a cross look. “You’ll frighten the girls with such talk. Besides, the last time we saw the Dark Lord’s Breath, it turned out to be nothing. Nothing at all.” She stared at Father as if waiting for a challenge.
All of Ginna’s sisters stopped mid-chatter and watched the exchange, each as still as unlit candles. Holma, the eldest, folded her arms over her ample chest and glared at Ginna.
Ginna tensed. What last time? And why did Holma glare at her as if she brought Loki’s Breath to them? The only other time Ginna had seen the mist was in a dream, or moreover, a nightmare. And no one, not her mother, father, or any of her eight sisters saw it, but her. It was a garish vision where the gray snaking darkness gobbled up the old beggar woman from the town of Thorp. The old woman had appeared in her dream, running and claiming the Shadow chased her until she fell, and a dark mist coiled over her. Then the beggar woman vanished in the thickness of it, and Ginna had shot upright in her bed, panting and screaming. The sight had given her such a panic that she shivered for days and brought her sister’s scorn, her mother’s warnings, and her father’s fearful looks.
The very look he wore now.
But Mama told her, quite sternly, that her dreams weren’t real. They were fanciful imaginings. A child’s whim to be left in her past. And they should never, ever be spoken aloud. Not to them. Not to strangers. Not to anyone.
The only problem with that pronouncement was that, when Ginna returned to the village of Thorp, the beggar woman hadn’t been seen for over a year. Coincidentally, the same time Ginna had seen the poor old hag running for her life in her so-called imaginary dream.
Father turned and examined the fire pit, studying the flames as they licked the air. The sparks lighted his faded blue irises that waded far off, as if he, too, was caught up in ancient, unfavorable memories. He swung his head, a slow, thoughtful gesture. “I don’t like it. Not one bit.”
Ginna flexed her fingers and heaved the bucket of sweet milk, the Goddess’s offering, from the floor. She didn’t want to go alone. Not out there. Not in that gods-forsaken mist, but she had to. Had to, because tonight would be different. Tonight, she’d not only ask for Holma’s marriage blessing but for—
Nei. I cannot ask. It is forbidden.
“The offering is women’s business, Hummel, dear,” argued Mama. “It’s the full moon. The Goddess Moon. The only one before Holma’s marriage. Ginna must go by herself. She must make the prayer, and all will be right.”
But Father rose from his favorite chair. “Nonsense, woman.” He stomped toward Mama and Ginna, snatched his mantle from a hook and swung it around his shoulders. “I’ll escort her. The Goddess should not mind on a night like tonight. I doubt even she has a liking for the Dark One. And I won’t see my child out in that haze.”
“But you can’t, Father!” blurted Ginna. She slapped her hands over her mouth. How had her tongue run away with her? Again? It had done so too often in the past days. She could blame it on the boy—the one her father had chased off with a pitchfork—but she knew he wasn’t the problem. She was.
Father notched his head toward Ginna, a swift, frightening movement that defied his weariness. He regarded his youngest daughter.
Moments flickered by until Hummel finally broke into laughter. “Can’t, she demands? My littlest lamb grows so bold as to tell me can’t?” He shook his head, but his gaze hardened. “After that outrageous stunt yah pulled with those traveling boys, yah’ve grown quite a lip, girl. I will not have such sass on one of my daughters! Now, button it up and do as I say, or you’ll be scrubbing the privy all summer long.”
And there it was. The shame of what Ginna had done. Just like her wily mouth, the “outrageous stunt” kept repeating. Just like her dreams, but that was a shame no one, not even her, wanted to discuss.
“And win a switch of the willow branch to boot,” Father added.
Ginna bowed her head. Her mind scrambled. If Father came, she would not be able to ask. And ask, she must. If there was any time more pressing, more desperate, it was now, especially after the incident with that boy, not to mention Holma’s engagement announcement. Ginna heaved in a breath, intending to speak.
“Ginna will probably ruin my offering anyway,” said Holma. “She’s jealous she’ll never marry.”
“Do not speak so coarse of your sister,” scolded Mama.
“Ginna’s never made a successful offering to the Goddess,” argued Holma. “Why send her when my marriage is at stake? And with Loki’s Breath out there. An ill omen if I ever saw one! And don’t think I don’t remember that night. I was old enough to—”
“Holma,” warned Father.
Remember what night?
“Hold your tongue or yah will be cleaning the privy for the next ten summers. And don’t yah ever call that demon to our door! Never. Speak. His. Name.”
Holma cast her gaze to the tamped earthen floor. “Sorry, Father.” She supplicated a fat lip and peered back up at him through wisps of dirty brown hair. “It’s just, my marriage is the most important event to happen to us all. If Ginna doesn’t get the Goddess’s blessing, we’ll all be ruined. Every last one of us. A disastrous marriage for me would make every one of my sisters undesirable. And then what would you and Mama do?”
“Which is why I be going with her.”
Ginna tightened her grip on the bucket’s handle. He cannot.
Loki’s Breath continued its spineless wriggling over the cold ground, worming toward the door, toward the tips of her calfskin shoes. The damp fog spurred shivers. She tugged her woolen caftan tight around her chin. Even the warmth from the central fire pit couldn’t stave off the chill.
Then Mama tugged Ginna’s sleeve, pulling her inside —just a step, just a smidgen farther away from the demon mist and her awaiting task. The older woman wrapped an arm around Ginna’s waist. Her mother’s scent of honeyed bread and the softness of long worn linen snuggled around her.
“Never mind your sister, my little one. On the night you were born, the Goddess came to me in my dreams. She showed me the symbols—”
“And you wove the charms into the hem of Ginna’s gown, and the Goddess blessed her with beauty. How many times must we hear it?” Holma glared at Ginna. She planted her hands on rounded hips, careful not to disrupt the pins of her in-progress wedding dress. Mama had worked on it every day since Holma had announced her good fortune, and tonight was supposed to be a celebration as she made the final adjustments.
“Besides, Ginna’s not so comely,” said Mar, one of the twins, though no one admitted to their unfortunate births. It was bad enough Hummel’s family consisted of nine daughters, and daughters only, without a single boy to lighten the burden. But twins? Such breeding was an abomination. It was a secret Hummel and his wife worked hard to keep. “She’s legs like twigs and breasts like chestnuts.”
The twins snickered. A smirk spread Holma’s round face.
“Shush, girls,” said Mama. She squeezed Ginna, lowering her voice. “Don’t listen to your sisters. You are blessed, and with our Lady’s favor, anything is possible. Even on a night like tonight.” A mix of fear and hope played within her mother’s gaze, the same perplexing look that always accompanied every glance her mother ever gave her.
What don’t they tell me? But Ginna knew better than to ask. “You always say that Mama, but it’s just words.”
“It doesn’t matter that the Goddess never answered before. You are goddess born. Born on sweet Freyja’s full moon. I see her beauty in you even now with your honey-gold hair and bright sky eyes. You’ve time to mature. I remember when I was fifteen. It was when I met your father, and he came to my rescue like a warrior on a great white horse. He married me without a single copper to my name.” Mama’s smile rushed. She’d told the story a thousand times. “There’s always hope.” She brushed Ginna’s cheek with the back of her hand. “Even though you’re ninth born, you are a blessing to me, my sweet girl. Don’t ever forget that.” Mama kissed Ginna’s cheek, releasing her. “Now. Chin up and go make the offering. We’ve been up way past bedtime these past few nights with Holma’s marriage preparations. The Goddess will hear your prayers. I’ve faith. She must. For all our sakes.”
Without her Mama’s embrace, the chill sank back into Ginna’s bones. She glanced at her sisters. All circled Holma, all but the second eldest, who had stayed in the village to sell wares to help pay for Holma’s dowry.
“Twirl again, Holma!” called Mar. “The skirt’s so pretty when you can see all of Mama’s embroidery.”
Holma obliged; her gown spun out like a hoop. The girls clapped to keep their sister spinning.
A rare twinkle lit Father’s eyes. Pride? Relief? He’d finally acquired enough wealth to marry off one of his nine daughters.
Father placed a bony hand on Ginna’s back. “Come, child. Let’s finish the task before the sun rises.”
Ginna glanced at the path before her, Loki’s Breath creeping ever closer. Her spine wriggled in response. She inhaled what she hoped was courage and faced her Father. Hummel stared down at her, eyes growing stern.
““Father,” said Ginna. “Please let me go alone.”
“Too dangerous, little lamb.”
“But it’s women’s business, like Mama said. We don’t want to anger the Goddess, not on Holma’s marriage offering night.”
“Besides that demon mist out there, wolves killed Porkell’s best goat two nights ago. And it be well past midnight. Ain’t safe to run ’round after dark.”
“The offering has to be perfect, Father. I’ll be careful,” promised Ginna. “And quick. Please, Father. For Holma’s marriage.” And for me. She wasn’t a liar, even though she had plenty of seasons secreting unsavory facts about herself from her family. Omitting her true intentions for the offering rushed heat to her cheeks.
Father’s eyes softened. He blew out a heavy sigh. “Why bother arguing with a woman? Any woman? Lambs? Pah! Hardly a one of yah be a lamb. More like bleating goats. Yah always gets your way even if there be nei sense to it.”
“Oh, hush, Hummel. You’re the uncouth old goat who talks like a backwoods farmer. At least my girls speak right and proper, like their mama, and with fine manners to boot.” She pinched his bottom, and he let out a growl.
“Yah did teach them well, yah high and mighty city girl.” Father planted a peck on Mama’s cheek, and she grinned.
Father snatched the knife from his sheath and tucked it into the folds of Ginna’s belt. “Be careful. Nagging goat or not, yah still be my littlest lamb.”
Ginna grinned. She stretched up on her toes and kissed Father’s cheek. He tried not to smile and gave her another hard stare.
“Look about yah. Keep yahr head up. Be wary of wolves. And if that demon mist thickens, yah come straight back. Yah hear?”
“I mean it, child.” Then he lowered his voice. “And none of yahr strangeness. Understand?” He stared at Ginna, capturing her in his gaze, his aged eyes alert and stern.
Ginna shrunk inside. She knew what he meant and knew not to speak of it as well. She gave him her most serious nod. “Nei strangeness. I’ll keep a tight hold on myself. Promise.”
He tipped his chin, but that perpetual tiredness returned.
Who I am…what I am…what I think I see…wears my poor father down. Ginna swallowed the thought. She gripped the bucket that much harder. She turned and headed out the door.
“Holler if yah run into trouble!” yelled Father.
“Don’t fret, Hummel, dear. She’s blessed,” said Mama.
“Yah be daft, woman. I ain’t seen a bit of the Goddess’s favor my whole life. And if the Dark One is out prowling tonight like the night—”
“Hush up that superstitious nonsense. She’ll hear you, dear. Let the child go. She’ll be fine.” She added more softly, almost to herself, “She has to be.”
Then Mama shut the planks tight against Ginna, the night, and the chill.
Within a blink, Loki’s Breath quickened. Its smoky fingers raced over the ground and encircled Ginna.
The Shadow Hunts
Loki’s Breath climbed upwards, thickening around Ginna’s ankles, then calves, thighs, and torso. It circled all the way up to her neck like a snake intending to squeeze its prey. Despite the nip in the air, beads of sweat broke through her hairline. Her palms moistened; she clenched up another notch on the bucket’s handle. For a moment, she considered turning back, but Holma’s marriage, her family’s futures, and her unasked prayer all rested heavily upon her.
Steady yourself. It’s not far to the altar.
Ginna pressed her foot forward, taking a step. Then another. Curiously, the mist moved with her. Though diminishing her view, it never touched her, as if an imaginary barrier kept the haze at bay. Foggy fingers sprung from it, as if seeking chinks in her invisible armor, but found none. The clip of her heart quickened. She walked faster. The mist never slicked over her skin, never clung to her hem, never moistened her caftan, staying a foot away from every part of her.
Suddenly, and without any fathomable reason, the haze slunk back to the ground and sped past her, down the opposite path toward the barn.
Ginna’s breath quivered, but she kept her pace. The full moon glared down, illuminating the silhouette of the ancient alder, the Goddess Tree, ahead of her.
Why had Loki’s Breath suddenly raced away? Was it an omen? An ill one? Or was its quick departure a blessing? The haze still rolled toward the barn, but Ginna focused on her task ahead.
A dead silence prevailed. Even the leaves refused to rustle. The cattle were still in the winter pastures since spring refused to breathe warmth and coax buds from the cold ground. Only twelve cows lay sleeping in their paddock as silent as sacrifices, and of the twelve, four must go with Holma’s dowry.
The moon shone through the gnarled limbs of the ancient alder tree casting twisted shadows on a polished slab that sat beneath the branches. The petals of a shriveled bouquet scattered over the ground from the last moon’s unanswered offering. Ginna’s hands shook as she placed the bucket on the cold stone. The milk sloshed, spilling over the sides and onto the altar.
Ginna tried to mop the mess with her skirts. “Forgive me, sweet Freyja. It’s an ill night, and my nerves…”
Aside from the foreboding of Loki’s Breath, Holma’s marriage confirmed a bitter truth: Ginna would never marry. Her Father had earned, traded, and finagled enough dowry for perhaps two more daughters. Holma’s new husband might bring enough coin to marry off a couple more of her sisters, but Ginna? Perhaps she’d be able to live off one of her sister’s crumbs of goodwill, assuming they married well. But if they didn’t?
Ginna glanced about, wringing her hands as if wrenching the jitters from them. The demon haze still lingered at the edge of her periphery, coiling around the usual thatch of trees, the privy, the sweat-house, and mostly the barn.
Ginna knelt before the stone. She slid her eyelids shut and reached for the hem of her skirt. She fingered Mama’s embroidery, tracing the Goddess’s symbols woven into the fabric.
“Sweet Freyja, Goddess of the night and the moon, our Lady of Love, hear me. First, keep us safe from the dark god’s touch. Make sure nei misfortune falls upon our house this night.” I have to get this right. “Secondly, please bless Holma’s wedding. Beyond the agreement my father has struck, gift her with love, fidelity, and children.” Ginna paused, then added, “Boys. Give her boys who will grow into strong-backed men and bring my sister a security Mama and Father have never known. And please bring enough silver to the marriage so my other sisters might have a chance to wed as well.”
A knot tightened her throat. I have nei right to ask. But her words tumbled over her tongue anyway, “Mama says you have blessed me so I may not ask for more. I don’t mean to offend, sweet Lady, but…” Her breath quickened. “I don’t see it. When I look at my reflection, I don’t see a girl touched by the Goddess. I see…” She paused. “Darkness. A girl cursed with black dreams, like that old beggar woman who disappeared into the night. I met her once, did you know?” She let out a nervous laugh. “Of course, you know. You’re the Goddess. You see all.”
The lump in her throat thickened. “Do you see me?” She hesitated as if waiting for an answer. “That beggar woman, a witch they called her, she saw the same blackness in me that everyone saw in her. And her future? Not a soul would love her. Not even her husband. And then…” Another pause. “Ruin.” She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to push back the hollowness rising from her belly. “Not a single soul would ever want me. Not if they knew who I was. What I am. The dark things I see. What I want more than anything is for someone to love me—a love so deep that nothing else matters. Not my visions, not my birth rank, not anything. I fear I’ll end like the old beggar woman. Alone. Gobbled up by the darkness. I know that marriage is too much to ask, but may I at least have love? Just once? Just to know there’s something besides blackness living inside me?”
A screeching wind whistled through the branches, disrupting the eerie calm. Ginna startled. Her eyes shot open.
Above her, an ebony cloaked figure hovered, its back facing her. Its feet never touched the ground. It hung as if dangling on imaginary cords. The branches of the alder tree peered through it as if the figure was partly there and partly not.
“Goddess?” She’s here. She’s answering me. Ginna’s heart thundered in her ribcage. Or am I imagining things again?
The form spun around, its mantle whipping the air like a den of black adders arising from slumber. The wrath contained in the woman’s movement seized every muscle in Ginna’s body.
The cloaked woman loomed forward, her head hidden beneath a mass of black linen. She traveled straight through the branches and trunk of the alder tree.
Ginna stared at the creature’s shadow-black cowl and lank white fingers escaping the cloak. You can’t be the Goddess, Ginna wanted to say, but her throat froze. Sweet Freyja’s a spring goddess, with flowing blond locks and a cloak of gold and green… Unless…
Ginna gulped. Unless the haze was, indeed, an ill omen.
“How dare you interrupt me!” The black Goddess’ voice echoed as if calling through a canyon.
“I… I didn’t mean to…” Interrupt? Ginna’s jaw trembled. Her mouth dried up along with the words she wished to utter.
The cloaked woman’s face hid in the shadows of her onyx cowl. Even so, Ginna felt the woman’s glare upon her as if scorched by a hot poker.
Is this real? Or a dream? Ginna’s breath came in quick pants.
The hooded figured wavered like a spiral of smoke starting to dissipate as if to disappear.
“Wait,” Ginna squeaked past the dry spot in her throat. “Please,” she begged. “Don’t go. If you’re there. If you’re real. If you’re the Goddess Freyja. Forgive me for asking for such a foolish favor.”
Ginna tried to stand, but her thighs trembled. Her knees buckled. She blinked, and the figure disappeared out of sight. “Please stay!”
The Goddess’s figure suddenly flickered back. This time, the woman hovered closer and closer, until the embroidered fringe of her cloak draped in front of Ginna. The hem displayed boars, cats, moons, and the same runic symbol Mama had sewn into Ginna’s gowns.
The black Goddess’s ice-white hand descended as if to touch Ginna. Or grab her. Or deliver a death blow. But instead of landing on her, the woman’s long index finger pointed outward. Ginna followed the line of her finger to Loki’s Breath, which congealed around her family’s barn.
“Careful, girl. The Shadow hunts.”
As the cloaked woman spoke, dizziness swamped Ginna’s head. Vertigo hit. The sides of her vision narrowed and darkened. She lurched into the woman’s cloak and passed straight through as if the wavering figure were nothing but mist. Ginna caught the bucket with the heels of her hands as she fell. The offering tumbled, the bucket splaying sideways, and the sweet milk spilled over the altar. Once her head stopped twirling, she steadied herself. She looked up, but the Goddess, or woman, or vision, or whatever she was, had disappeared— vanished into nothingness without a single trace. Had she ever been there at all?
And yet, Holma’s marriage offering was very much there, dripping off the cold, gray rock in ruins.
Ginna gathered her senses. She tried to stop shaking; she inhaled deep breaths, regaining her equilibrium. Sweetness and light! What just happened? She scrambled to her feet and fetched the overturned bucket. The spilled milk dripped from the stone and seeped into the ground below.
After promising Father I wouldn’t do anything strange, I’ve done it again. But this time I’ve spoiled Holma’s marriage offering. She gulped in quick breaths of air, her pulse pounding in her throat. Oh, sweet Goddess, I’ve ruined everything.
An Evil Warning
Ginna wanted to sob but darted for the barn instead. Her mind raced. What could she do to make this right? Had the goat produced enough milk to make another offering? Maybe she could do it again. For Holma alone. Could she appease the Goddess if she prayed hard enough? Was that creature even the Goddess?
It didn’t matter. One thing was certain: whether or not the cloaked figure was the Goddess, or some vision brought on by her dark ability, Holma’s marriage offering stained the ground.
As Ginna hurried, the full moon white-washed the path, the rocks, and the dead blades of grass. Loki’s Breath circled the thick timbers, planks, and weathered thatch of the barn squatting at the end of the path. A chill nipped at her flesh, but her limbs pumped onward, and she sped straight for the mist.
Ginna had always seen visions. She’d seen other places and people in her dreams for as long as she remembered. She’d learned to keep those images to herself, for fear of her sisters making fun of her wild imaginings. ‘Addlebrained,’ they called her. ‘A head full of nothing,’ they’d say. ‘A feather-headed fool,’ they’d tease when Mama wasn’t within listening range. ‘A dark stain that will ruin us all,’ said Mar in particular. And if Mama caught Ginna’s far-off gaze, or restless sleep, or worse yet, when she woke screaming in the night? She’d receive a stern scolding to grow up and rid herself of her childish imaginings.
But it wasn’t Mama or her sisters that bothered her the most. It was the look in Father’s eyes—one that spoke of fear. One that said her visions weren’t natural even though everyone else denied them, and it set her stomach roiling. It was the same look he’d worn when she left the longhouse tonight.
But none of her visions ever noticed her. They never laid their gaze upon her. They never spoke directly to her. Never. Until now. Was the cloaked woman truly the Goddess? Had Ginna’s selfish prayer brought down her wrath?
Is that what I am? A selfish, foolish, sinner of a girl making wishes for my benefit and ruining my sister’s only chance at marriage?
She might as well have called the Dark Lord’s name.
A squeal sounded in the direction of the barn.
What was that?
Ginna’s eyes darted back and forth, expecting to see the cloaked goddess come back to punish her. Instead, the mist roiled and writhed. It bubbled and churned. Tendrils snaked up the barn’s thick lodge poles, crept over oak planks, and sunk through wormholes and crevices.