The Thing, With Feathers

Val had lost hope.

Routine carried her where hope had stopped: up the stairs to tend the lamp. Into the forest for wood, apples, berries, more rarely a deer or a grouse. Her stores of magic and wild rice came from the same place, though not from the same method: the smaller, murky inland lake, the one too small to need a lighthouse, only the canoes and the flat-bottom boats of the rice harvest.

Her neighbors were willing to sell her the rice; willing, too, to watch her pick her way carefully out to the middle in her canoe alone. They never asked her about summoning the magic, though she glowed afterwards with the overflow, and they had reason to distrust things that glowed, these last eight years.

In fact, they never asked her anything. Asking was rude. Sometimes they told her things: how much for the rice. What day there would be fresh corn in from the farmlands, if she wanted any. How they thought the winter would be. (Cold. Wet. Bad. Always bad.) Once, something funny the baby did—but only once, and that felt like too much.

Val told them things too. Mostly lake things. How the water was settling, what ships had gone by. Whether anything had come out of it they should watch for. Not so many things as they told her.

Then she went home, up the lighthouse tower, full of magic, bags of wild rice on her shoulders, and sometimes inland farm vegetables she’d traded for. Before she was more than a tall tree’s fall into the forest, the deep silence had enveloped her, and she was home again.

The route home had gotten longer when the last of the old road crumbled and she had to pick her way through slough instead of walking over the concrete no one could make any more. It got shorter again when she and the neighbors combined their expertise to convince the nesting mallards to nest somewhere else so she didn’t have to worry about the hissing remnants of their egg shards.

Someone else might have found that balance hopeful, but Val just nodded; things changed, not with a direction, just changed. The mallards were dissolving something else now; they had not returned to their pre-event waddling placidity.

It would have been easier with hope.

But the ships deserved not to run into the rocks, even if Val didn’t expect anything much of the world or the people in it. The new things coming out of the lake often came in the dark, and they couldn’t all see in it, and some of them—some few—deserved a light to crawl by. And where they would find another lighthouse keeper this late in the age of the world, Val could not begin to guess.

One fall afternoon, when the chill had bitten into the wind but the ice had not yet glossed even the small lake, much less the edges of the big one, a very small boat put in at the lighthouse pier. Val did not see it at first—fall meant longer nights tending to the light and more tasks to stock the lighthouse for winter. So instead of seeing the boat, she saw, at the very first, a pair of boots as she came out of the forest with her arms full of wood.

“Hello?” she said sharply around the wood.

“Hello, are you the lighthouse keeper?” The voice was scratchy, tenor, further east than the lake but not jarringly so. Cheerful.

Val set the wood on the woodpile, turned back carefully. She had no reason to be afraid. The magic of the lake was still strong in her for weeks yet, barring emergency, and the lighthouse grounds were her own. When she could see more than boots, the man’s face was cheerful as his voice, a large pointed nose, spectacles of the wire design that were the only kind made, after. Dark curls touched with grey, a battered hat, smile lines. Few enough had managed smile lines, after.

“I’m Val, the lighthouse keeper. Yes.”

“Lucian,” he said. “Your old friend Mik said you might be able to help me. I’ve lost my hand connection to my magic. My wrist connection, actually. It’s a bit awkward.” He held his arms out, smiling.

He was not reaching for her. Val stepped back all the same. “Mik,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t do that work anymore. Not for a very long time.” Long enough, in fact, that Mik’s name made her blink.

The stranger, Lucian, was undaunted. “But you can still?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“Is there a guest house near here I can stay while we think it through, or a good sheltered spot to set up my tent?”

She wanted to tell him that there was no we here, no thinking to be done, only winter coming on to the big lake and its lighthouse, only chores to do and vanishing light to do them in. But he had not presumed upon her own space, which made her paradoxically more willing to share it. Even if it was only until the lake was clear to take him back again.

After all, he was a friend of Mik’s. And she missed the time when that had meant something to her.

“There’s a guest room on the ground floor,” she said. “you can haul water for me. I don’t promise anything.”

He grinned, and the lines around his eyes deepened like they knew what they were doing. “Excellent. Mik said—”

“The me Mik knew was another person. Another life.” She hesitated, but he had come by water, perhaps he would understand. “A river person, yes? I am a lake person. Don’t think of what Mik said of me.”

“Only of what you say.” He nodded and shouldered his pack, keeping brisk pace with her into the lighthouse. She smiled up at him despite herself.

Supper was hollowed-out acorn squash stuffed with bacon, wild rice, dried cherries, sage leaves, hazelnuts, blueberries. Lucian scraped the squash skin clean.

And he asked questions. He had understood her right away, not to ask about Mik or the city or the days before. But that left more than Val had remembered there could be questions about. Birds, to her surprise and delight—the ordinary kind. She thought a great deal about the shorebirds but had said none of it aloud. No one had wanted to hear about trading the fall shorebirds for the winter-nesting ducks and gulls unless there was something altered about them.

“The ones with the little white apostrophes on their eyes,” said Lucian, following Val up the stairs. “They’re—” He stopped, both speech and action, and Val knew why.

She continued calmly up, taking the beacon oil trigger out of its housing. The dark would not wait. “Scoters. Yes, they’re immensely more common since the event. I think they—well, there’s something with the magic. I don’t know what it is. They don’t eat it in the sense of making permanently less of it. It might make their eggs stronger. They’re the… the boundary birds, scoters. The boundary between the birds that were affected and the ones that weren’t.”

“That makes sense. About the eggs,” Lucian said, watching her move with the efficiency of long practice. Val thought he was watching for a place where he could be helpful, but everything from wick to housing case was a step she had taken every evening, same fire, same wood, same glass, same magic, and was difficult to improve upon.

And she had mentioned the event, leaving him uncertain where her boundaries were, what he was allowed to say.

There was only one chair in the lamp room, but when Val had finished her evening ritual, she took pity on Lucian and said, “You can haul one up from the kitchen. If you like. Not the one I used.”

He nodded and strode off down the steps, grateful for something to do. The chair scraped on the stone stairs, but they both emerged unscathed.

Val realized that she didn’t do so much smiling on ordinary days. Tried to suppress it. Gave up.

They sat together at the big wooden table where Val kept her ship log—increasingly useless, she felt sure—and her private account of which creatures she spotted in the water—and of course her log of birds. In addition there were two stone game sets, of which Val had made solitaire game rules. She thought for a moment she might have to remind herself of the rules of playing stone games with another person, Mancala and the other one whose name she couldn’t even remember.

But no, Lucian gently, shyly, asked about her private log. Not the birds that had kept their supper conversation so easy—but there had been that easy supper conversation, and so she slid the log across the table at him and stared out at the sun’s last dying reflections across the water as he read silently.

He was perhaps thirty pages into her increasingly eccentric hand, and it full dark, when she realized that he had not turned any pages in some time. She glanced over. His chin was on his chest. She watched him sleep a moment—not looking young, exactly, still a grown man with a full life’s experience written on his face. But unburdened. She wondered if she ever looked like that. She nudged his boot with her toe.

“Lucian,” she said in a firm clear voice, when he didn’t stir. “Lucian, I have to stay up the night with the lighthouse. You don’t. Go on down to bed, I showed you where.”

“Thank you for your indulgence,” he murmured, his voice low and fuzzy with sleep. She waved him off impatiently and listened that he didn’t break his neck on the stairs. It was odd having another person in the place, another breath and pair of hands, but not bad-odd. Nice.

It was only then that she realized she hadn’t said a word about him leaving in the morning.

She stared at water and did not think of the work she used to do in the city.

Dawn ended Val’s shift with the light, so it was late morning before she woke up again—an entirely ordinary time. For a moment she thought Lucian might have gone on his own, not finding what he sought from Mik’s lighthouse keeper, and—relieved, disappointed—she sat up. But there was a reedy tenor humming softly in the kitchen. She reached for a sweater.

She found him contemplating a bag of grey powder in the pantry. “Good morning,” he said. “I had travel supplies from my pack, but I’ll gladly cook if you’ll tell me—what’s this?”

“Wild rice flour,” she said. “Tasty stuff, but the griddlecakes you make with it come out looking like… well, you read through page fourteen before falling asleep.”

“Page—oh.” She watched him remember the tentacular beast that had climbed first the rocks and then the lighthouse itself before Val had ascertained that communication was either impossible or, at the very least, not desired by the other party. Lucian rallied. “Griddlecakes, you say. I can do that.”

It turned out he could. And with hot butter and blueberry preserves on her fingers, Val was forced to ask herself why she had planned to send him packing so quickly in the first place.

She gave in. “Mik has never been up here.”

Lucian looked startled but responded quickly. “I gathered.”

“Mik has no idea what it’s like.”

He tapped her log book. “Well, no, although the river—”

“More basic than that. The light comes first. You understand? Anything else we do, the light comes first. You break both legs, I break both legs…we help each other crawl to get the light lit.”

He thought about that. Nodded. “All right.”

“Preparation for winter comes second, because when the lake ices over—the little one where I get my magic—and the trail snows in, I had better be stocked. Some winters I get shoveled out a few times. Not all.”

“And if you’re not prepared, you die.”

She glared at him. “And if I’m not prepared, I die and the light goes out.”

He flinched.

“So. We take care of these things. And then if we have any time or energy left—and if I have any ideas—we see about your wrists. Deal?” She sounded harsh to her own ears, but he was nodding vigorously before she had finished speaking.

“There are no guarantees, I know that,” he said. “But even just the hope of something to help a little—”

She turned to the dishes so he wouldn’t see her face. She was pretty sure he noticed, but he let her get away with not telling him about it, not having to have emotions right then, at least not openly. He didn’t make her regret letting him stay.

It was a start.

The wood was a task Val mostly did without magic, so she could delegate that to Lucian right away upon discovering that he knew his way around an axe. She was not surprised, given his method of arrival, that he was also familiar with both catching fresh fish and tending to the salted ones in the drying process—but whether she should send him back out on the big lake in its current state without magical protections was another question.

Lucian was impatient with this response. “I got this far on my own without hovering,” he protested.

Val gave him a flat look. “You wanted to read my logbook. Apparently you didn’t want to think about it. You came this far to ask for my help—well, now you have asked. I’m not inclined to cast you to the harlequins for it.”

“The harlequins!” he said. “What, the ducks?”

She pressed her lips together. “It’s their lake now, and if you haven’t the sense to know that, go gather blackberries until you’ve learned better.”

The blackberries were near the end of their season, but he came back with so many apples—so many kinds of apple—to make up for it that she relented and started work on his wrists after supper, after the lamp was lit, before Lucian was ready to fall over in exhaustion.

She took each in her opposite hand, crossing them, which made him smile. Val remained serious. The smile dropped off Lucian’s face. His wrists were thin but not spindly, solid enough. She dipped into her magic supply and washed it around them from the outside. No structural defect, nothing organic.

“When did this happen?” she asked.

“When?” he said, but it was not confusion—a hesitation, a play for time.

“What stupid thing were you attempting,” she pushed.

His brown skin flushed pink.

“What pointless—”

“It wasn’t pointless!”

She held his wrists in her hands. Waited.

“The slough, it, we were trying—”

She waited a moment longer, but from the way his mouth had twisted, he would need to be prompted again. “You and Mik.”

“And Mik’s friend Rhoda,” Lucian went on, amiable as a child, and then stopped again, a child hitting a wall of nightmare. “Rhoda isn’t…Rhoda couldn’t make the trip.”

Val did not let herself drop his wrists, but she closed her eyes and silently cursed Mik and his relentless hope and his apparently bulletproof luck, that the things that came out of a unified slough never, ever came for him, but always for the person next to him.

She checked the lamp. First priority, last priority. It glowed steady and sure. While the waters of the big lake were rougher than the day Lucian had come in, louder, fiercer, nothing disturbed their surface but themselves. She could take the time she needed to start this.

She had no idea what time she would need to finish it. If in fact she could.

The power that she slipped into Lucian’s wrists was cool and felt to her as myrtle smelled. She did not expect to ever be far enough south to smell myrtle again. Lucian hissed as it went down his elbows and pooled at the end of his arms, with no way for him to handle it.

She worked at it slowly, like pulling taffy that was uncomfortably cold to handle instead of burning hot. Lucian swallowed hard and audibly. Val shifted her weight from one foot to the other and persevered. Her magic dispersed into Lucian gradually, like a scent drifting out a kitchen window, like blood spilled in water. Lucian tossed his head like a toddler refusing to wake from a nightmare. She soothed the last bit of magic in.

Val broke off. “That’s all for tonight. Go put them under the covers, keep them warm.” She had been using such childhood metaphors to think of him that she half-expected the protests of a much-younger man, but instead he nodded thoughtfully and bid her good night.

And she was left with the question: what was she healing him for? If she repaired his ability to use magic, would she just be sending this man, who did his share of the cooking and understood when enough had to be enough, back into the thick of the idiotic intentions of Mik, or someone like him?

Would sending him back into the world as it was be any better if he had one less way to cope with it? or to try?

Damn Mik anyway, for not just quarantining that slough. Damn him for fighting.

She could have cheerfully damned Mik for the rest of the night, had the lake not interfered.

First there were the scoters: barely visible in the dark except when the lighthouse’s beam caught the white punctuation of their eye-feathers. They marched the shore in a self-important and un-birdlike file. They kept silence and gave the lighthouse wide berth. Val noted them as best she could without looking away from the waters.

Then the water roiled and churned, as if it was boiling, but without the clouds of steam that had risen from the lake when sections had boiled the spring before. The water was unsettled. So was Val.

The hiss that rose from it was not the birds she was used to, nor the giant monster she had feared. It was a cloud, like midges but directed, angry, purposeful. She held her breath. But whatever their purpose was, it was out over the waters, not the lighthouse.

The lake calmed.

Val let her wholly inadequate defensive spells subside.

She cursed Mik’s name once more for good measure.

The lamp needed almost an entire extra night worth of oil and magic, as though the insects had sucked it dry in their passing. Val pulled it out and started again. By the time she was done, she was too exhausted to be angry at anyone. Over the lake, somewhere, the flies remained, unless the birds had gotten them. She had at least three hours to stay awake until dawn, and Lucian’s had been only the third watercraft since Midsummer. In the old days there would have been more than that in a night, more in an hour.

In the old days Val would never have kept the lighthouse to see them. She would have been down in the city, rushing around with city people, doing city things, choking on city air. In the old days, she would have hoped for a thousand trivial things, and several big ones, and not even noticed when one hope passed on into another.

She played a restless solitaire game with the Mancala set. Lost. Lost another. Started to juggle the pebbles in midair, without her hands, and made herself stop; who knew what magic she would need to heal Lucian, to deal with the birds and the flies and whatever else came out of the big lake. She might not have the time to harvest in the rice lake again in time. She couldn’t afford to be profligate.

There was no reason to be resentful about a habit of mind she would have cultivated anyway. Nevertheless, she was.

Resentful felt better than fearful.

Dawn was not any later than usual, but it felt that way, with her knees tucked under her chin, coiled, waiting.

The next day, she didn’t talk to Lucian at all until he came in from the woods smelling of ginger and glowing a bright orange. He had such a bemused look that although Val knew that these were very grave signs indeed, she burst out laughing.

“We need to talk about your turkeys,” he said in tones of utter disgust.

“I think you’ve just found that they are not meaningfully my turkeys,” said Val, snorting back another laugh.

“They seemed like—look, I’ve hunted pheasant before, down on the prairies.”

The laughter drained out of Val. “How long ago was this? Are they still prairies now?” He opened his mouth to answer, but she raised her hand to stop him. “No. No. You have to—you haven’t been listening. You went through whatever you did in the slough—you’re not some callow child—and you don’t talk to the locals about the birds? You just go after a turkey because it’s sort of—it’s not sort of like a pheasant, even before the event, it was nothing like a pheasant, how can you not know that!”

A small silence. “I do know that.”

“Then how could you—”

“The protein on one of those things—”

“The magic on one of those things—”

“The protein on one of those things would have bought us time to work. Time to work with whatever magics you needed. It’s not—I see how close you run things here. I see how tired you are.”

Val sat down in her own chair, at her own kitchen table, everything familiar except the sense of being seen.

“Why are you so angry at me?” said Lucian gently, sitting down with her, his orange glow pulsing in a way that Val felt she should find ridiculous but could not.

“You are so determined to die,” she said, and he pulled back in horror, but she continued: “So determined to fling yourself at things that will kill you. I can fix your wrists. Maybe. With time. I think I can remember how. I think what I’m doing will work. But that—that I can’t fix.”

Lucian was silent a very long time. Val got up and fetched a pitcher of lake water, uncleansed by magic or fine stones, and some dried violets. She crumbled the flowers into the water, briskly, and flicked it at him. He sputtered. She didn’t laugh.

“I don’t want to die,” said Lucian.

Val got up and flicked the water at the back of his head, his back. She gave his shoulder a rough shove, and he obediently stood. She kept flicking. Circled back to the front. He pulled his spectacles off and let her douse him thoroughly.

“I don’t want to die,” he repeated, and finally the orange glow flickered and went out. He heaved a sigh and sank back into the chair. “That’s not what this is, I’m not trying—look. You fight in your own way. You have this post, this lighthouse, it’s your most important thing. I don’t have a lighthouse. I just have to keep trying with whatever I find.”

“The lighthouse,” she enunciated carefully, “is not going to kill me.”

“It might.”

She folded her arms.

“There are fortresses, places where people like you—people like us—have built much bigger walls against—against what’s out there. Than you have in the lighthouse. You could go live in one of those.”

Val felt herself relaxing, almost against her will. “Ah,” she said. She sat back in her chair across from him.

“So you do understand, it’s just a matter of—”

“I don’t believe in those.”

Lucian nodded vigorously. “It’s not right to lock yourself in while the rest of the world, the less privileged world—”

“I don’t believe they’ll work. Those places will be hunting grounds as soon as something wants them.”

Val appreciated that Lucian didn’t actually let his jaw drop, but his mouth did open slightly. “Then—you—”

All her anger seemed to have left her. “I would really prefer that you were not hunted with them,” she said. “I would prefer not to put the time and effort into healing you only to have you hurl yourself into the maw of—of—turkeys. Or something that would like you to think it’s a flock of turkeys.”

“Which do you think it is?”

“I don’t know.”

They sat in a pleasant and companionable silence for long enough that he might have been one of the neighbors, long enough that Val wondered if she would have to break it to see to chores. Instead, Lucian said, “Why are you healing me?”

“I don’t like for things to be broken.”

He waited.

“There’s very little I think I can do, but this—this is one. And I won’t have you breaking it again.”

“What will you have, then?”

“What?”

He stretched his legs out before him and gave her a long, challenging look over his spectacles. “If you don’t want to heal my magic for use, what is it for?”

Val snorted out an exasperated breath and began to slam her way around the pantry, choosing parts of a meal she wouldn’t have to focus on but could pretend to. “Sensible use,” she said when the onion was chopped. “Not futile. Not risking yourself for nothing.”

“It’s not nothing.”

“It is if you could have found out first.”

“But there’s so much to find out.”

Val sighed and handed him potato after potato, loading them into his arm where it bent against his body. “I know.”

When she went to work on his wrists again that night, she could feel the difference. There was still no flow-through, nothing like it—but she could feel everything was less raw, more human, more ready to grow.

Val was almost going to pull back—enough for one evening—when she felt Lucian’s core reaching gently for her. Without access to his own hands, Lucian could do nothing… unless Val helped him. She had not thought of it until he was there, not pushing, just waiting to see what she did.

She let the two of them mingle their strength so it could flow smoothly out her hands. She did let herself pick up the game stones this time, with no better plan in place than to float them in the air. His sigh was barely audible, relieved.

She carefully, gently disengaged.

“How long?” she asked, quietly, but in the quiet that had fallen between them it echoed.

“Five months. And you?”

She did not pretend to misunderstand. “As many years. Go rest?”

There were no swarms that night, no line of fowl to point the way to a disturbance. The low hum that came from farther down the coast, to the southeast, did nothing to calm Val’s nerves, but it helped her to stay awake. She was not properly grateful.

In the morning, Lucian was. Not only was there porridge, but he asked clearly about his foraging plan instead of charging off to offend the neighbors. He also asked rather than reorganizing her linen storage, but his idea was far better than the one she had inherited from the previous lighthouse keeper, and they did the reorganization together cheerfully and efficiently.

Val realized that he didn’t remind her of anyone from her days in the city. Not a single person.

She already knew that she didn’t want to be reminded of any of them.

Her shoulders relaxed a bit more, and she laughed at the expressive way he twisted his face when the shelves came loose. She watched his hands move. She watched how he tilted his head in consideration.

It had been a long time since consideration had meant anything different from contemplation.

There was cheerful work around the lighthouse, congenial quiet, the waves making peaceful and ordinary lake sounds, gulls being gulls without pretensions to anything more.

Val felt guilty for her conviction that it couldn’t last.

It didn’t.

The honking of the v of wild geese made her flinch and scurry for cover. The stone walls of the lighthouse felt flimsy, and there were so many geese. She could hear them even inside. It had been a long week already. No one needed geese. The honking continued. Val knew there must be a second wing of them coming, a third, more.

She looked around the interior of the lighthouse. Lucian was coming out of the bedroom she had begun to think of as his. She took a ragged breath to explain. “The geese are—”

“They migrate. I know them,” he said. “The ones down in the city shift, do yours shift?”

Val nodded tersely.

“Not to human like the swans.”

“No.”

Lucian grimaced. “Wish there was something I could—”

“Stay inside. Stay safe.”

He looked out the windows, at the skies darkening with wings. “I keep thinking, there has to be some reason it’s geese. Whatever it is that’s… transformed them, become them, whatever it is. They could have been crows or sparrows or something. Why geese?”

Val felt she should rush off to handle the geese, but the question stopped her. “They’re strong,” she said slowly. “And they flock… I mean, crows work together, back in the old days I saw them working to drive a marsh hawk off a meadow to take its eggs. I didn’t know it was called that then, I didn’t know what they wanted.” Internally she cursed herself for the tangent, but Lucian was nodding.

“A lot of us didn’t. The species, the names, we just… didn’t. So when they turned like this, after the event—” She shook her head. “I have to deal with this now.”

“I know, I know.”

Val climbed to the tower, and Lucian followed without being invited. Upon reflection she decided she hadn’t asked him to stay out either. So that was all right. He was quiet, in the corner. Like a backstop.

The geese were not. The geese were not flying on but circling around the lighthouse, blotting out the sunlight. Probably it was not personal, Val told herself. Probably the magic was like an odor. She made the place smell delicious.

It felt wrong to be in the lighthouse tower in the dark and not light the lamp. And yet that was not the good she could do now.

If there was any good she could do now.

Goose wings buffeted stone solidly. It had to hurt them, but they kept at it, pushed, perhaps, by the bodies of their flock. Then they slurped and shifted together, wing eating wing. Val felt more than heard Lucian’s breath draw in, with the cacophony outside.

The merging goose flock thumped and squeezed the tower. The stones creaked. And finally, with no particular hope for it, Val released a spell out the window of the lamp.

The seething, grabbing mass that had been geese let out a thin honk and then a hum that modulated down to the noise of the night before. It jangled Val’s nerves and made her teeth ache. The former gooseness buckled back in front of the lamp. Val wanted to think she was killing it, or at least driving it away, but though she kept the pressure on, she never punched a hole through, never saw daylight. There was always more goose mass to patch it with, and more.

The honking and humming was deafening. Her ears rang, popped, kept ringing.

Val let the spell fall, panting. Simply battering at them wasn’t working. She remembered the days before the event, a creased science journal in a waiting room, when there were still waiting rooms, when waiting was something that didn’t come with chopping and carving and mending. It said something about magnetic fields. She modified the spell to make one of her own, to interfere with whatever remained of goose in the mass outside the lighthouse.

The honk aligned itself in pain, fear. But the geese kept coming.

She could feel the magic she’d harvested from the rice lake dwindling. Soon there would be only her own body’s supply left, and what she would do to live, and light the lamp, after that, she didn’t know.

Lucian’s hand was on her wrist, then his other hand on her other wrist, from behind her, the entire length of him warm against her back. It would have been too much to ask of herself not to think of flinching—but she didn’t actually flinch, and that was something, something that would have been beyond notable—huge—were it not that she understood what he was offering, and it was far beyond.

She wrapped his magic into her own and drew from his body instead.

Finally there was a pinprick of daylight—fading daylight, reflected setting sunlight—through the squeezing, squirming mass. The hum modulated into a dissonant chord. Val pressed their advantage, forcing the breach wider, longer.

With a shriek of scraping slates and a splash of ruptured organs, the goosemass went down.

Lucian let go of her wrists.

“Wood,” Val gasped, and he understood her immediately, leaping for the stairs with such boneless alacrity she was afraid he would fall. She built the fire for the lamp’s backup to take almost all wood, only the tiniest spark of magic, which she gave it and promptly passed out.

It was full dark when she awakened in her own bed. It had been so many years since she slept in the dark in her bed that it was terrifying to awaken that way. But Lucian must have put her there, she realized after the first moment’s shock. She raked a hand through her sleep-mussed hair and padded up to find him.

“Does this happen often,” he said, not turning away from the lamp. It burned hot and clear with the fire he was maintaining.

“Not precisely this.”

“Imprecisely.”

“You know it does.”

He was silent a long time. “I had hoped that cities—the pollution—”

“Well, that’s the thing about pollution, isn’t it? It never stays in one convenient place. And farms and mines and logging concerns polluted plenty, back in the day. I don’t know that pollution caused the event, but if it did, we’re not safe here. Or anywhere.”

The big lake made its deceptive placid lapping sounds against the rocks.

“I would like to stay here and help you,” said Lucian in a low voice. “Once you’ve healed me. We work well together, if last night is any hint. I think we could work even better when I’m at full strength, and I think—forgive me—I think you could use the help.”

Val looked for her indignation and found it missing. “I thought you wanted to fight in the cities.”

“This is a fight too. And—you are a fight too.”

She glared at him.

“We beat the geese.”

“We did. There will be more.” But for the first time, she could let herself think ahead, plan, even hope beyond the light. She flexed her wrists. “All right. I’m going to have to harvest magic again today. You might as well come to see where it grows. We’ll see how this works out.”

He didn’t try to kiss her. She didn’t move to kiss him. There was space that they might fill with that, or they might not. For the time, it could be filled with a magic harvest in the rice lake, and clearing a path to the forest through the goose corpses, and hope.

(Editors’ Note: Marissa Lingen is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)

Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with two large men and one small dog, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

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