Read The Shadow Behind the Stars Online
Authors: Rebecca Hahn
For my brothers
THIS IS A STORY ABOUT
the end of the world.
It is a lesson for you, mortal, so listen well to my words. Shiver and become them. When you sleep, dream of them. When you blink, see us sisters spinning, measuring,
in the darkness behind your lids.
Know us. Fear us. Heed my warning, mortal: Stay far away from us.
My name is Chloe, and I am the youngest. Mine are the fingers that choose the wool, that shape the thread, that begin it. The sun smiles upon me. Men love me without knowing who I am. I have lived forever and will live forever more.
By the beginning of this story, I had seen everything. Nothing was new to me, not in birth or death or living. There should have been nothing left that could surprise me.
Here is the thing about this world we spin, though: It is full
of surprises. Live a thousand years, and you will be surprised on the thousand and first. That is the beauty of itâthe impossible riddles, the dark. It is also the dangerâhow quickly your life twists suddenly inside out.
Even for us it is this way, immortal as we are. We can still be startled by the beauty, and the danger can still take us unaware. Even when we think we are ready for it; even when we know better.
We should have known better that first afternoon, when the girl showed up on our doorstep. We should have realized the danger she brought when we saw the dark pain in her gaze. Maybe then we could have stopped it; maybe then the end of the world never would have come.
Or then again, maybe it wouldn't have made any difference at all. My sister might still have cast her spell; the fish might still have jumped out of the waves before the girl. I don't know when it's ever done us good to know what's coming, after all. Mostly, there isn't anything that any of us can do.
This girl was young, only just beyond childhood, but she had already lost her family, her friends, everyone she knew. The raiders had come and killed them all; she had watched as they screamed, as they fell, as they slid from the edge into darkness. She had lain quite still and pretended to be as dead, while the men took what they wanted from her village and smashed to bits everything else. The girl felt, there in the bloody dust of the road, that she was being smashed to bits as well.
When they had gone, nothing was left of the life she had
known, and nothing was left of this girl but an unthinking urge, an ancient instinct to pick herself up, to stumble out through her village, not looking, not smelling, not hearing. She walked for days, for weeks. She followed that invisible pull through fields, across streams, not caring where the road went or how rough was the ground. She only walked on, and crawled when she couldn't walk, and at last she was climbing the steep rock slope between our crashing waves, balancing one step after another until she had reached our round green island. And then she stood, feet raw, in our doorway, looking in at us.
Not many make it that far. I'm sure you'll already know that.
She told us what had happened. Her eyes were flashing with what she had seen; her voice was harsh. When she had finished, she demanded that we tell her what there was to live for now.
She was so insistent that we tried to answer her. I listened to the whir of my whalebone spindle. Serena ran her fingers along the girl's gold thread, feeling every bump and twist. Xinot clicked her scissorsâ
âand sniffed at the empty space where that thread came to an end, staring blankly all the while with her swirling eyes.
We stopped our whirring and fingering and sniffing. We looked at the girl.
There is nothing we can tell you,
We know what your life is made of and its length. We can guess at the emptiness beyond. But we are not allowed to tell you what is to come, and we have never been told how a life ought to be used.
Xinot turned back at once to sharpening her scissors on a rough gray rock. I gazed silently at the girl: at her locks, as golden as her long, long thread; at her eyes, blue as a summer sea. She was beautiful, even after that desperate journey. I found myself wondering what she might have looked like beforeâwhen she was still happy, when her eyes had flashed with joy.
Serena, though, didn't turn from the girl or watch her silently. Serena could not bear to send her away like that, and she stood from her chair and went over to the girl. She wrapped her arms around her, and the girl almost collapsed into them, closing her eyes and letting out her breath. The lines in her face relaxed as they mustn't have in the last two weeks, since the raiders first were spotted riding toward her town.
We have some magic beyond the spindle, the thread, and the scissors. Serena laid a hand on the girl's head and said,
Forget it all. Go, and start again.
She pressed her lips against the girl's forehead, stood her upright, and turned her from our door. The girl walked away, as we knew she would, as she must.
I shook my own dark, silky hair over the front of my shoulders and turned back to my spinning. I wouldn't wish for the girl's golden locks. She may have been happy once, but looks like that only ever led to trouble. Consider herâfamily dead, no reason to live, and decades, by Serena's measure, to steep in her pain, to wake in the middle of the night gasping through her tears.
Serena stood in the doorway two moments more, and then she took up her place in the chair between us again, stretching the newest thread from my spindle over toward Xinot's
blades. She started a song, a ballad men sing as they board ships to war. I added a descant harmony, and Xinot hummed a low, pulsing undertone.
We returned to our work, and I imagined the girl climbing back along the narrow pathway to the mainland, Serena's words turning her mind into a pleasant fuzzy mush.
I was sure that she wouldn't be coming back. You mortals never did. You came, you made your impossible demands, and then you left again. It had been this way for ages, longer than any bard could remember. With luck it always would be this way.
You would think, being who I am, that I would be wary of making statements like this, even only in my own head. It's a tricky thing, the power we shape and measure and cut.
Get too full of your own cleverness, too certainâyou'll find yourself marrying your mother, cutting out the heart of your father, eating your children's fingers for breakfast.
Three minutes after I'd mused, so certainly, on how none of our visitors ever came back, the girl with the golden locks showed up in our doorway once again.
That was the first surprise of that day.
My spindle jerked and skittered away over the stones. Serena dropped her thread with a soft cry. And Xinot almostâ
a man's thread off seven years too short, and it hung there, the half-severed thing, flashing red and silver. Then she drew the scissors wide and held her fingernails
just where Serena had handed the thread to her. The blades
together with a harsh ring; the man's thread fell to the floor, pooling into an orderly mound just below Xinot's feet.
The girl was smiling serenely around at us all. She held up a fat, flapping fish by its tail. “I was climbing over the rocks,” she said, “and this fellow leaped out of the waves, threw himself right down before me. And I thought, you ladies must be so busy, with all yourâwork.” Something skipped across her face; Serena's spell, I'd guess, fighting against the girl's doubtful thoughts. Then her olive-smooth brow eased. “And since you've been so helpful to meÂ .Â .Â .”
“What is it she thinks we've done?” I whispered, and sent the words tumbling over to Serena.
My sister shrugged, her empty hands still frozen where they'd held the thread. “Whatever the spell's set her up to believe,” she sent back.
“.Â .Â . I thought I could begin to repay you by bringing you a nice tasty fish and cooking it up for you.” There went that face skip again, as the girl considered our one-room house. We haven't much in the way of furniture: just a stool for me, and a plain wooden chair for Serena, and an old stump for Xinot, from a tree that died so long ago it never had a name. We've a fire pit in the very center sometimes, and sometimes a grill sits over the coals, or a tripod with a cauldron hanging between its legs.