The Shadow Catchers’, Vanessa Fogg

Illustrations © 2020 Katharine A. Viola

 [ Birchbark bucket, © 2020, Katharine A. Viola ] Cin isn’t afraid of catching shadows.

He’s been at it for a long time, of course. Longer than any of the other boys here. So long that he can’t remember doing anything else; he doesn’t know anything other than the glide of a boat through moonlit water, the pulling of oars or the repetitive arc of the birchbark bucket in his hands. Over and over he scoops up shadows from the lake, and there’s a faint hiss as the shadows touch magic-gilded birch and then vaporize into the cool night air. They have to be caught at the right time. Taken after they’ve drifted up from the deeps, but while they’re still beneath the surface, swirling in plumes just under the lake’s moonlit skin. The shadows have to be caught before they cohere, before they contract and develop form. Before they rise from the water of their own volition.

Cin has never seen what would happen if a catcher is too late. He’s never seen a shadow escape.

No one speaks about the possibility. It’s never happened, as far as anyone knows. That’s what the children on the lake are here for: to keep it from ever happening. Night after night, they row and dip their buckets. They’re bound to this task, body and spirit. They’re here to hold back the dark.

There’s a new boy out with them tonight. “Ash,” the others are calling him. The Master bought him from a city trader; he was a failure as a chimneysweep, the boy’s former guardian complained. Afraid of heights, of falling, of enclosed spaces. Perhaps he’ll do better on a boat.

Ash looks to be about five or six years old, although it’s hard to tell with boys bought from the city; they’re all so thin and small. He won’t meet anyone’s eyes, won’t talk. He flinches at sudden movements. One of the younger boys makes him flinch on purpose, until Cin makes it stop.

Cin and a boy named Pey take Ash on board; they paddle toward the lake center, where the shadows are. The moon is only a crescent, so the shadows aren’t too active tonight—yet the lake catches and reflects each gleam of light in the sky, so that the whole water glows a faint silver-blue. Lanterns on the boats beam additional bright spots.

Pey steers on the glass surface, while Cin shows Ash how to catch. How to slide a birch bucket’s lip gently under a shadow’s swirling black tendrils, how to gather the wisps together and tilt smoothly up. You don’t want the shadow aware that you’re catching it. You want it to stay calm. And you want to catch as much of it as possible, as smoothly as possible, in one go. Otherwise you have to chase down the fragments left behind, and those fragments are now agitated, angry. They thrash and splash and twist toward the light.

“They’re talking,” Ash says, fascinated.

Most boys learn to ignore it. Row, scoop, and scoop again. No time to listen. The shadows’ whispers are soft—like the rustle of trees, like the distant roar of waves trapped beneath the lake’s glass surface. The shadows whisper to each other, to themselves, in the dark. Cin tilts up his bucket.

The hiss and fizz as the magic takes. The captured water, and shadow, evaporate.

Ash cries out—a sobbing, choking sound. “You killed it!” All shyness forgotten, he stares into Cin’s eyes, horrified.

Pey laughs, and there’s an edge to it. “Don’t you know anything? You can’t kill a shadow.” He gestures broadly at the lake. “It will come back the next night. They always do.”

Ash looks uncertainly at him.

“It’s true,” Cin says. And he repeats what the younger boy has already been told. “Remember not to touch one. And don’t let a shadow touch you.”

It’s the first thing they all learn. The cardinal rule. Cin wonders how long this latest boy will survive. At nearly fourteen, Cin has already lasted longer than any he knows.

The Master will bind the newest boy. And once bound to the lake and his duty, the boy will never leave. This is what country and King require. This is the price of peace. This is the outcome of a compact made by sorcery and gods and Life and Death themselves, among these lonely hills, in this high, small valley, by the side of a dark lake amid the ruins of fire and war.

Cin hears the whispering of shadows. There’s one that he hears constantly, since he accidentally touched her almost a month ago.

He wakes early these days, sometimes long before dusk. He leaves the other boys who are sleeping in the room with him, in the only intact building in the village. It was built after the Black Wars: a single long room to house children, the Master’s private quarters to one side. Cin walks past the remains of other buildings, most marked only by a crumbling wall or two. He’s drawn to the great abbey which looms over all. Sky shines through its pointed archways, and through intricate stone tracings which once framed glass. Columns and walls stand, but the roof is gone, and underfoot grass has reclaimed stone.

Here, says the voice in his head.

Here, she says as he walks past what were once the cloisters. Here is where I came to collect the washing. Here is where the Sisters slept.

Here, she says as he passes open ground. There was a kitchen on this spot. My best friend worked there.

Here, she says as he walks under open sky. Here.

He’s come to what was once a great hall, surrounded by pillars on each side. A stone altar stands at the end, still intact.

Here is where we all ran when we heard the enemy coming, the shadow says in his mind. Here is where we all crowded, the Sisters and the servants of the abbey and all the people of the village. Here is where we prayed to the Mother of Heaven for protection, while the enemy broke down the door.

Cin smells the smoke of centuries ago, tastes fire in his lungs.

“It was long ago,” he says aloud.

As though hearing him, she says, It happened just now.

None of the other boys know that Cin has been touched. Pey didn’t see. It was a night of full moon, the lake seething with shadows, everyone working fast, urgency like a drumbeat driving them on. The Master’s voice in their heads as sharp as a whip. Cin brought up a bucket too quickly, too roughly. He severed a wisp of shadow. Angrily, it writhed on the lake’s surface. As he went back for it, it splashed in a wave on his hand.

It fizzed away in his bucket. Its touch stayed on his skin.

He froze.

It—she—spoke. He realized that he’d caught her before. Of course, all these years on the lake—he’d re-caught many again and again.

“Hey,” Pey said sharply. “You okay?”

Cin shook himself from his trance. He looked down. The water glowed, and darkness moved beneath. In his daze, he felt strangely calm.

He said nothing. He bent back to work.

The boys at the lake are special. They’ve been chosen. The Master gives a formal speech about it each time he binds a new boy, and on every Peace Day. These boys—orphans, cast-offs, failed apprentices of other masters—were all brought here through the hands of the gods. They’ve been given this chance to serve their King. To defend the empire from shadows of the past, to help maintain the Black Compact.

Once there was no Empire. Once this land was a patchwork of petty kingdoms, constantly fighting. Once there was only chaos and despair. Out of that despair, out of the horror of the Black Wars—a single King to impose order. A single god over all. A united country, all minor gods bowing in obeisance to the First God. A compact sealed, an agreement on all sides to the containment of darkness.

Once the Master made this speech with conviction. The years have passed, and white hairs now grow at his temples. He tries, but his words increasingly have the flat rhythms of a rote delivery.

On the dark of the moon, when the shadows sleep, the Master sometimes provides a special meal. He joins the boys and pours himself wine. He tells stories that are not of the Black Wars, not of the distant past with its glories and terrors. He speaks of the glories of the present day. The news he’s heard of the Empire’s growing expansion, the new weapons and sorceries used to advance the King’s might across the world. He speaks of great ships crossing seas, of wagons and machines that move on their own, fueled by steam and magic. These new sorceries—yes, they’re developed at the very college where the Master himself studied! And the Master has seen the King’s court with his own eyes! The Master begins reminiscing of his old life in the city; he speaks of great palaces, of music that plays in the gardens, of courtyards strung with lights like tiny suns captured in glass. The soft, luscious wines. Dark-eyed women with bold stares, who wear their hair piled high on their heads and silken gowns that leave their white shoulders bare. . . The Master goes quiet. After a moment, he starts talking about how he’s spent far too long on this assignment, in these wretched hills so far from home. He keeps drinking. His eyes grow glassy. The boys wait for him to give them permission to end the meal, to leave.

Pey and two other boys were bought from the capital. They lived in the slums. They have no memory of any of the things the Master speaks of.

Here, says the wisp of shadow that Cin touched.

That was my home. It’s a bare patch of grass, not even a stone or brick to be seen. I lived there with my mother and three sisters. We grew beans and peas in the garden. I slept under a quilt my grandmother made.

There was a pear tree here, she says, where no pear tree is. There were plum trees on the abbey grounds. The gardener’s boy, Tesh, used to sneak plums to me. The abbey kitchen turned them to jelly and wine.

No pears or plums, no trees at all on this sweep of land. All burned, all blasted. In three hundred years, only weeds and grass have regrown.

Down a small slope, the lake shines before the ruined abbey like a jewel in the late summer light. Black Lake and Lake of Shadows, the people in Cin’s time call it. The shadow with him says, Heaven’s Lake and Blessed Lake of the Mother.

There’s a man with the Master when Cin gets back to the house. A mage-official, younger than the Master, handsome and higher-ranked as well; Cin recognizes the stripes on his uniform. Such officials visit from time to time, on various business. The two men are standing outside the Master’s quarters, speaking in low tones. The Master looks unhappy. Neither takes notice as Cin slips into the boys’ section of the house.

The boys notice, though. Cin has been out walking by himself too many times, for too long, before dusk. He forgets to answer when people speak. He’s present but increasingly elsewhere, listening to voices that others can’t hear.

The boys look up when Cin enters. They’re eating breakfast. Then they all look away. Pey looks away a moment later than the rest.

The Master calls. It’s time to head to the lake.

Cin isn’t afraid. He touched a shadow. He always knew that it would happen one day: that he’d make a mistake; that his luck would run out. That he’d meet the fate of every boy in this valley. It may take months for the shadow’s memories to devour him. When he can no longer work, Ash will take over and the Master will buy yet another child. This is how it goes. This is how it’s always gone, since the sealing of the Compact.

He finds that there are still surprises.

The visiting mage comes with them to the lake. That’s not the surprise; from time to time, mage-officials have always come to inspect the lake and shadows, to ensure that the Compact is well. The officials usually stay on shore, observing from there, but it’s not unheard of for them to sometimes get in a boat.

This one gets in a boat. And he has his own bucket.

Not a bucket like the boys’. Not the soft birch-bark containers gilded within with silver light. The bucket this official carries is made of some type of metal, and there’s no light at all within. It’s all of a deep, deep black. A metal that reflects no light; a blackness that stands out even in the fading light of day. Blacker than shadows—black like the place from where the shadows emerge, the deeps of the lake where neither lantern nor moonlight can reach.

Cin feels cold when he look at it, as though touched by the lake.

Master Hamel, the visitor is named. He’s come to conduct an experiment, the boys’ own Master explained to them after breakfast. They shouldn’t concern themselves with it. Just focus on their work.

Their Master is nervous. They could all see it when he introduced Hamel. They see it now as he and Hamel push a boat from shore. As for Hamel—the younger man’s face is ablaze with eagerness.

The sun is spilling gold into the water, in its final moments before darkness. A half-moon hangs in the sky. The boys follow the men onto the lake, Cin and Pey rowing with Ash between them. All the boys are abuzz with curiosity, even Pey, who as one of the older boys likes to affect a cool aloofness. “What is that!” he keeps saying of Hamel’s bucket. So little happens, so little changes in this valley, and here is a new official whom no one has seen before, young and bold, with his unheard-of “experiment.”

Dread tightens in Cin’s chest, rolls in his belly. He doesn’t speak as the other boys chatter. He tries not to look at the mage with the black bucket.

The sun sinks. Nightfall. Shadows rise to the surface.

Shadows whisper.

Over the past month, Cin has heard those whispers more and more clearly. He doesn’t understand—he only catches the occasional word—but he knows they have stories like the shadow he touched. She’s out there, too, in the lake somewhere, even as part of her lingers with him.

He’s only just scooped up his first shadow when he feels the scream.

He feels it, a silent wail that echoes through the lake. Darkness thrashes and churns around his boat, as though all the shadows have been cut in half. Pey swears.

Cin finds himself shaking.

He looks to the Master’s boat nearby, and in the twilight he sees horror on his Master’s face. Triumph in Master Hamel’s. Hamel is holding his black bucket up and out, showing it off with pride.

Ash is crying.

“What’s wrong with you!” Pey hisses at them both. He means, Get back to work! Back to work before the Master notices, before the shadows come close to getting out—

The thrashing around the boat calms, although Cin can still feel the shadows’ anguish. He can hear them crying. Does anyone else? Ash is wiping his eyes.

He feels the Master in his head, a soft, warning command to get back to work. Not yet the lash. Cin feels the compulsion of his binding. “Hold the lantern,” he tells Ash, even though Cin doesn’t need the light; after so many years, his eyes are well-trained and have been spelled to see shadows. The darkness in the water swirls, angry but more manageable; with care, he can catch them. The new boy doesn’t need to do this, not now, not yet.

After all, Cin has already been touched.

A shudder through the water. Another silent wail. Something caught. Something trapped and held.

He looks again to the mages, sees Hamel in the act of lifting his bucket from the water a second time. He sees the man’s face aglow in lamplight and moonlight.

“He’s not letting them go,” Ash whispers. In that instant, Cin understands: the black bucket doesn’t vaporize and release shadows back to the world. It holds them fast. It takes them as prisoners.

Pey bites his lip. He works silently, grimly, bailing the water of shadows. The whole fleet of boys is doing the same.

The lantern trembles in Ash’s hands. Cin bends down with his bucket.

Hamel scoops a third time, then a fourth. Each time, Cin feels the shadows wail. The piece of shadow that he carries with him stirs, sensing the present moment, and cries out as well. The lake shivers and stills. He hears his Master’s voice: crooning to calm the waters and also shouting in his head.

Cin hardens something inside himself. He dips his bucket. He keeps working.

At the end of the night, the young mage is jubilant. Once on shore, he whirls and whoops like a boy, his black hair flying. “It worked!” he keep shouting. “You know what this means!” He grabs the Master by the shoulders as he says this. Master stares back, his face tight-lipped and gray in the early dawn. Hamel laughs. “You will remember this day,” he promises the children. And he hugs his metal bucket to his chest.

The bucket that holds four shadows. Shadows that can’t escape, can’t return to the lake. On the way back to the house, Hamel doesn’t stop talking; words spill from his lips in a rush. He speaks of the ore from which the bucket’s metal was mined, precious and newly discovered. He speaks of the casting of intricate spells. He crows that it’s a historic day, a day that will be written in books to come. No longer will the shadows languish in the lake, their power wasted. They can be put to work. They’ll be harvested, pressed into service for His Majesty, their power used to fuel the new war machines deployed overseas.

That’s not the Compact, Cin thinks but doesn’t say. None of the boys speak. It’s not their place to speak. Their Master looks ill.

“A drink!” Hamel says, as he and Master walk toward the Master’s quarters. He puts a hand on the Master’s arm. They disappear through the doorway, neither looking back at the children.

The children go into their own section of the house. Cin immediately falls onto his thin mattress. The others are talking all around him, trying to understand what’s just happened. He closes his eyes. He hears the voices of trapped shadows.

What happened? she asks in his head. What’s happening?

Darkness behind his closed eyelids. He hears weeping.

She keeps reliving her last moments, and he lives them with her. Her little sister in her arms. Her mother’s arms around them both. Her older sisters somewhere in the crush of people, the gardener’s boy across the room. Everyone she knows is here, her entire world. The Sisters are singing, praying to their Mother Goddess; the elder men and women of the village kneel at the altar with them. And then everyone is singing, or trying to sing through throats choked with fear. Their goddess will protect them. She must. Even barbarians respect this sacred place, her holy abbey and lake. They would not dare to attack. They wouldn’t.

Shouts outside the door. The explosion of mage-spells against the abbey walls.

The girl who remembers is still singing in her memory. She’s singing and praying and singing even as everyone else falls silent, even the Sisters; even as glass shatters high above and smoke steals into the room. Even as the door falls and there’s only screaming and fear and pain and her mother is dragged from her sobbing and they take her little sister, too, stomping on her hands as she tries to cling on; she’s praying and singing within even as she screams.

Hamel is gone the next day. Back to the capital with his bucket of caught shadows. Back with proof of what he’s achieved.

He’ll return, the Master says.

The Master looks haunted, dark smudges under his eyes.

But there’s nothing to do other than what they’ve always done: to bail the lake out each night, to keep the darkness at bay. It’s what they’ve been brought to do. Hamel and the mage council have simply found another way to do this, one that better serves the King and country, and which the boys will implement as soon as Hamel returns.

More metal buckets, black as night, are on their way.

Cin catches a shadow in his birch container, and before it evaporates it speaks of sunlight on the hills. Wind in the meadows. He understands the words. Another shadow whispers of falling snow and fire on the hearth, of warmth and family gathered close.

Ash is crying again. He’s just a little kid, so he’s always crying. Cin and the others try to ignore it.

 [ Rose, © 2020, Katharine A. Viola ] The shadow in Cin’s mind speaks of what happened afterward, after the suffering and fire.

Darkness. Silence.

And then a goddess’ voice like white lightning.

The girl was no longer a girl, hurting and afraid. She was something else—a scream in the wind, a breath moving through trees, something rushing over meadows and hills and scraping the roof of the sky. A storm, a howl, a flood.

The boys’ Master has spoken of this. The last, terrible phase of the Black Wars, when the gods themselves hurled the souls of the dead into war. The Mother Goddess of the Hills began it, in revenge for the attack on her abbey. Then other gods, in turn, unleashed their own dead.

Trees and fields were stripped bare, the earth blackened. A cloud of shadows hid the sun. Black tides swept over city walls, and wherever the darkness touched, the living went mad. Even the greatest of mages were possessed, their minds warped and overthrown.

On the brink of utter ruin: a call for truce.

A collective prayer for peace.

The gods were merciful. They stepped back. They considered. And then they knelt to the First God, pledging allegiance to him, even the angriest and most stubborn of little gods. And the First God chose the First King to rule the new nation.

It’s the next part of the story that Cin knows best: how the gods called back their dead. How they pledged to never again to use them against one another, or against any of the people who were now one people. One nation. It was a Compact sealed with blood, with souls both living and dead. The dead shadow-souls were contained, lulled into a dreaming sleep. Some were buried deep in the earth. Some were stripped of all memory and set loose, scattered among the stars.

The Mother Goddess of the Hills gathered her own, the first shadow-souls, and set them dreaming in a black lake. There they are till this day, a memory of what once happened, and a warning. And every night a chosen group of children are tasked with catching the shadows, not letting them escape.

Half-dreaming, Cin remembers his Master’s stories, and he thinks of what his shadow has shown him.

She’s not angry, he thinks. She just wants to remember, and to tell someone.

Hamel comes back with black buckets. He comes with others to help him.

The old Master is dismissed.

Cin is the last to see the Master before he leaves. It’s been years since he’s stood alone in the man’s chambers like this. He remembers running to this door, crying because an older boy had been tormenting him and the Master was the only person he knew to turn to for help. The mage had sighed and rubbed Cin’s back. He can be harsh, his command-voice a lash, but it’s needed to keep the boys focused. He could be much worse. He feeds the boys well. He can be distantly kind.

Cin remembers stories from older boys long gone, of cruel Masters who have served at the lake before. This one is the only one he knows.

The Master looks at him now, from behind a desk that’s been swept clean. His eyes are tired. His belongings are already packed in his trunk.

“Mage Hamel. . .” Cin starts. He stops. His heart is clanging behind his ribs.

They look at each other.

The Master’s gaze is steady. He says softly, “Do what Master Hamel tells you to do, Cin. Do whatever they say.”

“But—” Cin is thinking of the stories he knows now. “But it’s wrong. Master.”

The Master gets up from behind his desk. He places a hand on Cin’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he says.

He leaves soon after, while the other boys are still asleep. A hired porter helps carry his things. He looks old and defeated as he walks away, and guilty. But as he raises a hand to Cin and turns away, Cin thinks he sees a flash of relief on the man’s face, too.

And now there’s a new Master, and shadows to capture and keep.

Hamel and his assistants have worked everything out: which areas of the lake to start with, which boys should begin. There are only so many black buckets, so they’re rotated among boats. It’s all planned: the rate at which the lake will be emptied, the storage and transport of shadows to war. The gods approves, Hamel says. The Mother Goddess was consulted. The Compact holds: her shadows won’t be used within the confines of the nation; they’ll be used only outside, against outsiders. Against those who aren’t covered by the Compact.

Cin still feels each shadow’s cry as it’s stolen.

The first group of boys are given new buckets, and they come back looking shaken. Some are near tears.

Everything’s changed. So many strangers in the empty village. The officials who have accompanied Hamel, and the servants who attend them. Temporary quarters that bloomed overnight amid ruins, canvas tents and magically rebuilt stone. Wagons rattle up the little-used road with supplies.

What’s happening? Cin’s shadow asks.

He’s never been sure how much she senses of the present. Or of how aware she is of him. She tells her story again and again, as though to herself and to the world at large. Part of her dreams in the lake, speaking to water and air and night.

They’ve found a new way to use you, he silently tells her.

She doesn’t reply.

They’re on the lake, catching shadows. Half-moon in the sky. Shadows swirl in silvered waters, and Ash is sobbing hard on the floor of the boat, a black bucket at his feet. He doesn’t want to do this. No, no, no, he’d shouted, a child’s stubborn resistance, unyielding to threat or reason. The mind-lash that Hamel used on the other boys, that he used just now on Cin—that white-hot whip of pain, or the slower, warning aches and stings—only drove the little one into a screaming mess. But now Ash quiets and sits suddenly upright, as though pulled on a string. He grabs his bucket and pivots to the side of the boat. All his movements are abrupt, jerking and forced. In frustration, the mage has taken over the child’s body; he forces his will inside as a hand might push itself into a glove. He’s not careful. He doesn’t try to be careful. The child’s movements are sharp and clumsy, and on the very first scoop, Ash’s hand touches a shadow.

Cin sees it. Pey sees it, too.

The shadow cries out as it’s trapped.

Ash is silent, but tears stream down his face. He catches three more. His movements smooth out, but he’s still crying.

Pey isn’t gentle. He hasn’t been gentle in a very long time. He’s willed himself to be hard. But that morning both he and Cin sit on either side of Ash’s bed, and Pey holds the little one’s hand.

Ash stares blankly at the ceiling, at nothing.

Pey and Cin’s eyes meet over the child’s body. It’s been a while since they’ve looked directly at one another like this.

“How long do you have?” Pey says softly.

Cin shrugs. “I don’t know.” He casts his mind backward. “I think it’s been three months.”

Pey nods. Three months could mean anything. Cin might be close to perishing now. Or he could linger three months more. Pey and Cin have seen boys pass within weeks of a touch, and after half a year.

“I hate this,” Pey says.

“Me, too,” says Cin.

Cin walks to the abbey. It’s the middle of the day. People stare, but no one stops him.

Noon sun on the stone columns and arches. The heavy air of late summer, pressing thick on his skin. He wanders through the ruined colonnade, down the great space of what was once the worship hall. There are white roses on the altar at the end. Some of the new servants are locals from the lower valley, and they’ve taken to placing flowers there.

He smells the aftermath of fire. Wet soot and ash. The sunlight fades; the sky turns gray.

Why? he whispers. Why does she keep bringing him back here, dwelling in this place in her memories? Why have the gods condemned her to this?

Walls rise up around him, solid and strong; a great roof arches overhead. Light pours through stained glass high above. He hears song.

There’s a woman standing at the altar. Robed all in white, before the white roses. When she speaks, her voice rings through him, and he vibrates like a struck bell.

“This isn’t the Compact,” she says.

Her tone is calm. But there’s anger beneath.

He sees the cloud of darkness again, sweeping the world. Living minds are ravaged: mothers throw their children from the tops of city walls and soldiers fall upon their own swords. Kings lie in the dirt, weeping and clawing. Cities burn. And then he feels wind, dust on his lips, a sense of time passing. He sees mages bent over Hamel’s black buckets. He sees them emptying those buckets, murmuring spells, and feels shadows screaming. And then he sees great wagons fueled by shadow-essence, racing over deserts and fields; he sees towers flashing in the sun and shooting flame. He sees men wielding weapons that he can’t understand; they point small cannons but cause explosions from miles away, greater and more devastating than anything humans did in the Black Wars.

The visions fade. Sunlight pours down from a blue sky, through the roofless abbey. Cin finds himself soaked in sweat.

The woman at the altar is still there.

I never meant this, she says in his head. This isn’t the Compact. The King and his priests and mages lie. They twist the terms.

He feels the shadow within him, grieving. She’s always grieving.

The Goddess is grieving, too.

Full moon on the lake. The riskiest night of the month. The sky so bright that it blots out all stars.

Cin and his boat-mates are on the water, Hamel’s buckets in their hands. They shouldn’t have these buckets; it’s too early in the rotation; the buckets should have gone to others. But Hamel knows that Cin and Ash have both been touched. Better to use them again than to keep risking others. For as long as they can still be used.

Hamel is regretful over Ash, in his way. “Too young,” he’d said, shaking his head. “Your old Master was a fool to take him on.” And he even grew a little teary over the old man’s mistake.

Ash hasn’t spoken since. His gaze is turned inward. But he holds his bucket readily enough.

The shadows are restless. In the light of the moon, the entire lake glows the color of milk. No lamps are needed to track the darkness beneath.

Cin hears every one of them now.

His heart aching, he dips his bucket.

He’s caught this shadow before. It was once a little boy. A boy who threw acorn caps at his sister and laughed, who ran foot-races with friends and played on the shores of the lake. Who followed his father to the fields and cried for his mother on his last living day.

The bucket holds the shadow. The water boils away. The shadow remains.

The scream cracks across Cin’s mind like forked lightning. For a moment, he can’t see at all. Then the world resolves itself through blurred eyes.

Ash beside him is mechanically scooping. Pey on the other side is scanning the water. Around him, boys in other boats are scooping shadows up with the old birch-buckets and then letting them go.

Two mages on the lake: Hamel to control each binding as needed, and another to help keep the shadows calm.

Cin dips his bucket again.

A Sister from the abbey. A scribe. A memory of quiet hours in her curtained alcove, copying records and prayers. The songs of evening service. The peace of the Goddess in her heart.

Her cry on being trapped is no less anguished than any other’s.

Cin blinks and wipes his eyes.

Another shadow drifts close. A man who’d come to the village on business. He traveled a long way. He had a sweetheart at home, and was thinking of her at the end.

Cin catches him, and pauses as the shadow wails.

The water ripples and churns. Even without Hamel’s buckets, full-moon nights are hard. So many shadows in commotion, drawn up toward the light. Now, even with two mages, the water seethes.

Cin feels the pull of his binding. Master Hamel’s voice in his head. A band of hot iron squeezing his chest.

He fills his first black bucket. He reaches for his second.

She’s out there somewhere, the one that he touched. And part of her is with him, and she’s whispering her story over and over: a girl who knew sunlight and sorrow and love, and never wanted to be used in war.

It’s not right, Ash had said, before his body was taken over and his mind broken.

A splash. Cin hears Pey shout. Was he touched?

The moonlight is so strong; it’s as though the moon were right overhead. The eye of the Goddess. All around, shadows are whirling and thrashing. Both mages are now singing to calm them. The men are on the verge of losing control.

A shadow comes near, and he knows that it’s her. The soul of the girl who’s haunted him for months.

She loved climbing the hills near the village. She loved feeling close to the sky. She liked to look down at the land falling below: the valleys and hollows, sheep grazing in fields, the world stretching out beyond sight. She felt sun and wind on her skin, and felt free.

The mages are distracted. The shadows are in tumult. There’s a thin slice of time in which Cin knows he can act.

He drops his bucket to the floor of the boat. He reaches both hands into the water.

She reaches for him, too. A flow of darkness. He grabs, and pulls from that darkness a pair of hands. She’s taking form.

Master Hamel shouts, too late. There’s only one voice in his head now. The Compact is broken.

Cin pulls her into the light, into air.

© 2020 Vanessa Fogg

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