To Cogadhi Steorran,
I understand you are the ward of Udo Steorran, Stark Summoner of the Realm. It is of Steorran’s well-being of which I humbly write to you and request your presence in the town of Berkhammer. Steorran recently lost his spouse, Tillie, to which I offer my greatest condolences.
You see, it seems Steorran has summoned souls—against our wishes—to this quiet town, and what was once a sunny, overgrown village with crisp ivy and syrupy maples is now cast in perpetual fog. Our gardens and flowers are failing. The few townspeople here do not leave their cottages for fear of bumping into Steorran’s wandering souls. I do not believe Steorran means harm, but he will not take visitors.
I should also mention that, although Tillie has passed, her voice echoes from their home. The windows are open. It is dark inside.
As a member of the family, and on behalf of Berkhammer, I beseech you. Come at once.
• • • •
The best part of riding in a steam calash was the sound. Like listening to waves at sea, despite bumbling over cobblestone streets or dirt roads. It made sense because the carriage was built like a small boat on wheels. The steam engine and its water filter tank sloshed below the plush leather seat. Udo used to say “let us set sail” whenever we hailed a calash, and because of that, any small errand became an adventure.
“Let us sail, young Cog, to the great unknown that is the haberdashery,” he said, or wherever it was he wanted to go. He hated hats, but it was standard fashion in Bronzeport, where it often rained, and where outsiders spit the word “Brassport,” because all the statues and houses in the once-great shining town fell into disrepair and ruin. Metalized inns and thoroughfares brassed over, green from the acid rain, with shrieking gates and doors rusted at the hinges. Brassport. Shriekport. A dilapidated town, though I haven’t been in years. But it had been ours. Udo was the summoner there for decades, and the people loved him for it.
I’d never been to Berkhammer, where Udo and Tillie retired years ago. From Tillie’s descriptions, it was another dilapidated town—which was precisely why they chose it. A mining town since abandoned and given back to nature. Its townspeople nurtured the overgrowth, let the roots run free, altering only when necessary. It was the exact opposite of Bronzeport to that effect, a different type of green. Udo could summon for pocket change, and Tillie made ribbons for her bows.
I slumped in the calash seat, heaving a sigh.
“Oh, Tillie.” My voice cracked on her name.
Making bows was all Tillie knew how to do, and she enjoyed it, despite it being superfluous. I remembered bows all over the house in Bronzeport. Bows tied to the banisters, table legs, and door handles. A house full of bows, poofy ones, sagging ones, ones with patches if she didn’t have enough of one color for the ribbons. Bows of green velvet as soft as a child’s cheek and bows coarse and rough from potato sacks. Tillie came from a famous seamstress family, but she used to tell stories about how she never made it past the art of making ribbons and bows. She took to the activity like a fowl to water, floating away on its curves and simplicity.
“When they asked me to make a doll dress, of course I used bows. All bows. It was hideous, Cog,” she told me, laughing. “But I’ll tell you what: They sold that dress. Got a good token for it, they did. Some miller and his husband found it enchanting, and so did their daughter.”
I loved that story.
Now Tillie’s stories were over.
I crumpled the letter in my palm as the calash bounced down the country road. I heard the axles, poorly oiled, groan and screech with every hole or surfaced root. I should have paid more for a better carriage, one with ventilation and shade, but Udo taught me to be frugal to the point of stinginess.
“If you can survive without it, you don’t need to pay for it,” he said.
“Stop this nonsense.” I whispered to myself as the calash bounced again.
Stop reliving the past, Cog.
Udo was an old man, a man I hadn’t seen in years and neglected to write. Sure, I wrote Tillie during the holidays; I sent gifts and trinkets I found on my travels. But I never sent a direct message to Udo. He was…a hard man. Selfish. Dramatic. Tillie was his only softness, rounding out his severe lines and smoothing his bark. He taught me everything there was to know about summoning. It was Tillie that taught me how to feel.
“TEN. MILES. TO. BERKHAMMER.”
The speaker on the front of the calash announced it three times in a cracked staccato. Its speakbox was out of tune, and each word drowned into a sob. I hoped it would make it back to its charging station without any fuss, otherwise I’d have to pay double. I leaned out to take stock of the outside of the calash, inspecting its wheels. The axles wobbled, and was that a leak?
Shades, I swore to myself. Best to summon a bit of luck.
I took a pair of shears from my vest pocket. Small and sterling silver, its handles wrapped in ornate vines with a large daisy at the intersection. Tillie’s old sewing shears.
My hand was big enough to palm them now; they used to be huge on my stubby fingers. I clutched them as my arm shook.
Do you think, one day, you might call me Ma? It was the last question she wrote to me. I always called her Tillie. For years, I didn’t want to call her “Ma,” because my Ma was the one who left me at the orphanage where Udo found me, seeking an apprentice from a common source. I was one of the lucky ones.
But in the last few years, I began to refer to her as such to my friends and lovers.
“My Ma wants me to visit.”
“That’s something my Ma always said.”
I never told her, but I think she sensed it. Hoped for it. She wanted to be someone’s Ma.
Fingering the shears, I snipped a lock of hair behind my ear. I pocketed the shears, patted the pocket, and then held the lock of hair in my palm.
The smell of burning hair hit my nostril before I saw the flame, and then poofed into a pile of blue ash, mixing with my magic. I leaned out the side of the calash and hoped I wouldn’t tip onto the road. Wouldn’t that be the day. Then I’d have to run after the calash like a fool.
Seeing the water filter tank and engine, I tossed the blue ash onto them, muttering a small summoning spell under my breath.
The engine coughed. Sputtered.
Then it reared up like a horse. I yelped and clutched the side of the calash, pushing myself back into the seat. The whining and sputtering stopped, morphing into an efficient, small growl. The wheels picked up speed.
“SEVEN. MILES. TO BERKHAMMER.”
I leaned back against the seat, dragging a hand through my rumpled hair. You could always tell a summoner by their hair; different lengths all around the scalp, or an undercut. A summoner who used most of their magic for a large spell was often seen with cropped hair.
Growing up, Udo grew his hair to his waist and later on, let Tillie plait and tie it with her bows. I once joked he looked like a regal horse, and he bit back that he’d be able to summon me to the desert with that mouth.
“Leave a bit of yourself to spare, Cog,” he growled. “Lest you find yourself in a place with nothing more to give.”
Mayor Chesshir had not lied in the letter. At about five miles from Berkhammer, a great wall of fog swallowed the calash. One moment it was sunny, birds chirping and crickets singing, but after the fog, the brightness croaked. Most sounds died.
The calash stopped in the middle of what I believed to be the town center. The storefronts were covered in ivy. Clematis curled around the columns of overhanging porches. Even from a distance, I saw the leaves browning at the edges, wilting in the fog. There were leaves on the ground despite it being midway through spring.
A door slammed. Whispers.
I got out, shouldering my satchel, and dropped tokens into the coin slot on the side of the calash. The machine made an about-face and wheeled off again. Luck be with its wheels.
A lilting voice rose from the fog. “Cogadhi Steorran?”
A figure formed; bowler hat sat on a draping mass of tightly wound black curls. I couldn’t make out a face until they were up close.
“Mayor Chessir?” I asked. A flush crawled up my neck; I imagined someone…older and now wanted to kick myself. How ageist of me. This person looked no older than I, three decades in, give or take.
“Sorry,” the figure said, swiping aside a curtain of curls to reveal a plump face, dark eyes, and a smile. “Indeed, Mayor Chessir, at your service. Chess for short.”
Chessir held out a hand, small and covered with rings made from spoon handles and warped glass.
“Some call me Lady Chess as a joke,” she said. “But I assure you, I am not a noble.”
“She wishes she were!” a voice rang from a storefront.
“Go shove a bouquet up your arse, Mannon,” Chess yelled, her voice turning boisterous and cackling through the fog. “You could use a good blooming!”
Chuckles answered in the distance.
“Apologies,” Chess said. “That wasn’t—that wasn’t very professional, was it? We’re smaller than even the little gale towns, and Bronzeport might as well be the center of the continent to us.”
I shook my head. “You’ll hear no complaints from me, Mayor.”
She scowled. “Oh, don’t call me that, either. Just Chess.” She swept more hair from her eyes. Adjusted her hat with her ringed hands. “And don’t let that back-and-forth fool you, it’s been quiet as a sea bottom here. Mannon is the only one brave enough to make a call like that. But she hasn’t come across Steorran’s souls like others have.”
“How many are there?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
“Souls?” Chess touched her chin, frowning. “Couldn’t say. I’ve come across a few, and they each repeat themselves.”
A few was not a good sign.
“I see.” I cleared my throat. “Best to get this over with. Lead the way, Chess.”
She nodded and turned, “This way, Cogadhi Steorran.”
“Cog is fine.”
Don’t let Udo hear you say my full name, I was tempted to say. But then Chess might ask more questions, and I was not in the mood. Certainly not in the fog.
Chess seemed to know the way, striding through the veil as if it’d always been there. A good mayor, then, I determined. Fearless. Her presence was strong and soothing. I saw her hold out her hand—as I had riding in the calash—to watch the fog twirl around her wrist, as if sensing her warmth. Her curly hair was knotted and nappy in some places as it rolled down her back, thick and lovely.
“You say something, Cog?” Chess called behind her.
“No,” I said. “But I have a question: Did you know Tillie well?”
Chess stopped and half-turned to me, her eyes downcast. “Ah, Tillie.”
My chest constricted at the softening of her voice. What had I hoped for? That she didn’t know her? That I might be able to whisk by in hopes of not a single person wanting to touch my shoulder and pity me? For soul’s sake, Cog, I chided myself. You know better.
“She was grand,” Chess said. “Kept Udo balanced and tutted him when he was an ass about anything, which was often.”
Sounded like Udo to me.
“It was an illness,” Chess said. “Fever. Took us all by surprise. Udo especially. He couldn’t summon anything fast enough, and with Tillie being the elder of them, her bones were softer. She collapsed after a day, was bed-bound for a week, and then her soul went a-wandering.”
Chess reached inside her jacket and held out her hand. I was not ready for the sight of one of Tillie’s bows, having packed mine deep down in my satchel. But there it was, perfectly tied and worn at the edges. Deep burgundy with a ribbon that shone despite its use. The main knot was tied to a leather cord.
“She gave it to me,” Chess said. “I can’t bring myself to wear it at the moment.”
“She doted on you.” My eyes heated up, tingling at the worn fabric. We were surrounded by fog. I smelled grass, wildflowers, and wet bark, but here Chess and I stood in a cell of mist, staring at a small bow. The only bit of color, bright as blood.
“You flatter me,” Chess said. “She doted on everyone.”
I smiled. True, no one was beyond Tillie’s reach.
Chess looked up, and her eyes snagged on my lips. “I gather that’s the first genuine smile in some time. It suits you.”
I clamped my lips, another flush crawling up my neck. My skin was darker than Udo’s and Tillie’s. But damn if my blush stuck out like a summoned soul on a beach.
Chess said nothing, but her grin widened. I wondered if she was an aura reader, able to sense emotions and energies. Udo found them quaint creatures and often gloated during my apprenticeship that he was unreadable. Regardless, they’re no one to be trifled with. No one wants to be read too clearly.
Chess pocketed her bow and waved me on.
“We’re nearly there,” she said.
• • • •
We stopped at the end of a pathway, where a waist-high iron gate hung open. The iron was rusted over, overgrown with vines and grass as high as the top of the gate. The fog lifted a little, as if holding back a curtain to show the path to Udo’s cottage.
I had not realized Udo and Tillie had, quite literally, landed here.
The cottage was the same one I grew up in. Udo tinkered with some machinery and summoned buoyancy, allowing the cottage to rip from its foundations in the middle of the block and float away.
“Couldn’t bear to part with it, could we,” Tillie wrote in her letters. When they moved to Berkhammer, I thought they left the cottage somewhere, moved into a leftover building from the mines. Instead, they brought it here, and—as was custom in Berkhammer—let nature fold over.
It was an eyesore in Bronzeport, but thick moss and ivy now rounded it out, softened its architectural arrogance. Technically it wasn’t even a cottage. More like a single-story limestone townhouse modeled after Udo’s rough eclectic ideas, but it was always called “the cottage.”
A turret taken from a fort on an abandoned island rose on the building’s south side. The turret was made of mismatched stone fitted together like a puzzle. Next to it sat a spire from a chapel that collapsed in the ghost towns of Riverton. A stone gargoyle perched on a railing of the spire—a creature that plagued my childhood dreams—but it was now swaddled in moss. Tillie must have filed down its horns at some point. Still, it looked terrible.
It was a misfit of a building before it landed here in Berkhammer. I hoped someday it might belong to the landscape, tucked into a warm bed of leaves and dirt.
As Chess had written, there was no light from the windows. No shadow paced the top of the turret, as Udo used to do when there was a thorn in his mind.
The door lay open, and I shivered at its beckoning.
“This is where I leave you, gentle summoner,” Chess said, and I started at her voice.
“Oh, I—yes.” I hated myself for it, but I didn’t want Chess to leave. “Other business to attend to, Mayor?” I tried to sound coy, but it came out hoarse. Might as well have begged.
Please, I am afraid. I am not ready.
Chess seemed to recognize this, and she smiled.
“This is where my welcome ends. Anytime I get too close to the house, one of his souls hounds me with a phrase. I don’t relish the encounters. And then there’s Tillie’s voice…”
She bit her lip, staring past me toward the cottage.
“It’s not right,” she said. “Hearing her like that when she’s gone.” She straightened, brushed dust from her lapels, and gave me a look I recognized in Tillie. Stern and full of authority.
“Help him, Cog,” she said. “He needs to let go.”
Then she turned on her heel and marched back the way she came, hugged by fog, until I couldn’t see her hat, her hair, or her ringed fingers. She did not glance behind. Whatever Udo’s souls had done was not terror in its strictest sense. She knew well enough what it was. She witnessed that which was ready to be locked away. Be done with.
And Udo kept striking the town in the face with his grief.
I faced the path, shouldered my pack, and walked to the door. My steps echoed against the pounded dirt, gravel hissed beneath the soles. I cringed with each step announcing my presence. There was a childish hope that Udo wasn’t home. Perhaps he was gone. Left this place to ruins to return to Bronzeport or elsewhere. Anywhere. He used to be someone like that, often running to the farthest corners of the continent.
“When you think you know how the world works, turn a corner,” he told me during my apprenticeship. “Take a left down a dreary corridor. Open a door. There will always be new shadows and light.”
I approached the front door of the cottage. One of the hinges had rusted off, and the door hung open like a lopsided hangnail. The old snail doorknocker installed in Bronzeport was gone, leaving only lightened wood of its shape.
I felt like a boy again, waiting in line with the other orphans, stomach growling with hunger and nerves despite inhaling the grainy cream of wheat they served. I swallowed, raised my hand to use the knocker but remembered it wasn’t there. I clenched my hand into a tight fist, then lowered it. To knock at all seemed too loud. There was a thick atmosphere of waiting.
Then a tinkling of laughter rang from the house, and my spine went rigid.
“Visitor, dear,” a voice said. Shades, I wanted to heave. It was Tillie’s.
“Aye.” A guttural rasp. Udo.
The door groaned open. There was no light from within. Not a single lamp or bottled star in a sconce.
“We’re beyond pleasantries,” Udo said through the darkness. “Stop wasting the day.”
I gripped my pack, stepped through.
No time for pleasantries. No time for it. My heart beat in my ears as I walked into the cottage I grew up in, now dank and molding at the edges. It smelled of moss and fresh soil. Webs grew from the walls themselves, immense spiders vigilant to my arrival.
Udo sat at the table in the breakfast nook. There, the same crescent moon of a table awaited, with enough space for three seats. Udo sat at the northern tip, a teacup clutched in his hands. I couldn’t tell what was in it from the shadows. He wore his signature trench cloak, and as usual, he hadn’t put his arms through the sleeves. It draped on him like a rag, but it used to be something regal. He had the hood up, shoulders hunched. The seat at the southern tip was empty. My old chair. A curved high-back wooden chair painted over and over until it became muddy with color. I often painted it to reflect my mood, and so it became an onion of me. I walked slowly to the table to stand behind my spot, facing Udo across the curve. Tillie used to sit between us, in a plush chair too big for the table. Always a pillow or two to cushion her bottom and back.
A shadow of someone sat there now.
“Who is this?” I croaked, waving at the figure.
“Would you like some tea,” a voice bubbled from it.
I felt it again; a pain so deep in my stomach I thought I might be sick. My shears were in my pocket, and I took them out again to snip a single strand at my temple. I held the hair in my palm until it melted into blue ash. An orb of light pulsed from my palm.
I summoned a spell and waved my hand. Let there be light.
The breakfast nook illuminated, the orb from my hand splitting into smaller ones and nesting in the shell sconces on the walls. Spiders scurried back to their nooks. I heard hundreds of tiny footsteps of insects and mice as they retreated. I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief seeing Tillie’s fingerprints on the cottage; her ways of making it a home for us. Bows were painted in a pattern around the window. Moss pushed through the cracks. Her father’s tea set still sat on the buffet table near the stove, as well as the collection of milk bottles she’d amassed from their travels, the glass stamped with each location. They looked clean, despite the disrepair and neglect of everything else.
I forced myself to look back at the table.
I faltered. Stumbled.
My knees hit the ground and I sobbed.
Udo clutched the teacup tighter. “Stand up, Cog.”
I hugged myself, shaking my head.
The figure sitting at the table, in Tillie’s seat, was but a shade. A soul that Udo amassed from his magic, his memories, and trinkets Tillie loved. It was a scarecrow of bows, cloth, wildflowers, sticks, and leaves. Her shoulders were two milk bottles; I should’ve noticed there were some missing. Her face—her face—was an amalgamation of buttons, thimbles, thread from her kit, and dead leaves. To reanimate a dead person was an abomination—summoning was not resurrection—and Tillie requested to be cremated anyway. No, Udo kept his oath and his love’s wishes, but he was always one for loopholes. He saved her voice, his memories of her, and molded something anew.
I raised myself to one knee, leaning on my thigh.
“Udo,” I said, breathing deep. “What have you done?”
“You cannot blame me,” Udo said quickly, as if he’d been rehearsing this. He knew. “You cannot blame me for needing more time. She would have wanted to see you again.”
“That is not her,” I said, pointing to the thing in the seat. “That is not Tillie.”
“Would you like some tea?” the Not-Tillie asked.
Udo’s fingernails scratched along his teacup. “It is close enough.”
I shook my head. My pack slid off my shoulder and I stood. I spat on the ground, willing down the bile in my throat. Down. Down.
“You should have written,” I said. “You should have summoned me yourself, not let this town become your grieving grounds. Do you have any idea what you’re doing to the land, to the people?”
“I need more time,” Udo said, his voice grinding into a whine.
“Would you like some tea?” Not-Tillie asked again.
“You should have summoned me!”
Udo slapped his palms on the table. His hood slipped down to his shoulders.
His hair was shorn, cropped to his ears. I’d never seen his hair so short before. Silvery strands emanated from his forehead and temples. He looked older and younger at the same time. What used to be a long beard was now a mismatched field of stubble and whiskers. His grey eyes, once so piercing, were drowned out. He was a summoner undone.
“You should have come home,” Udo growled. “Me summon you? We, who raised and fed you, who taught you all I know? You should have sought us out. At the very least sought Tillie out. And yet you could not be bothered.”
My fists clenched.
“Aye, I know what she was to you, Cog,” Udo said. “Hate me, sure. Avoid me, sure, lest you be connected to me, Stark Summoner of the Realm. But you could have at least come home.”
He let out a long sigh. It rattled in his chest, and when the air from his lungs reached me, it smelled foul. I clutched the back of my chair, woozy and nauseous. It all came together: Tillie’s sickness and death. Udo gave all he had of his magic to make this Not-Tillie, and now he was sick, and the cottage was sick, and souls of him, parts of him, ran rampant in Berkhammer.
I dragged my chair back, stepped around it, and slumped in the seat.
“Would you like some tea?” Not-Tillie asked again. I waved her off.
“No, thank you.”
“Call her Tillie,” Udo said.
“I’m not calling it Tillie,” I said. “That is not Tillie.”
Udo grumbled, lifted the teacup to his lips and slurps.
“She’d hate what you’ve become, you know,” I said. “This would break her heart.”
Udo stomped the cup back on the table. “You know what broke my heart? Watching her waste away. Watching her take it on like a summoner and die a scared child. Where were you, Cogadhi? Off gentle summoning, nurturing sick goats and fucking young men and women on plush pillows?”
Teeth grinding, I muttered a spell under my breath, and the cup flew from Udo’s hands into my own. Without snipping hair, the spell singed my palms. A blister would form, no doubt, and the skin was already bubbling.
I sipped from the cup and sputtered. Stale, over-steeped tea. Cold, the leaves at the bottom shriveled. Was that mold? I spat.
“What is this?” I asked.
Udo shrugged. “A brew from the garden.”
“Oh, what do you care?” Udo growled again, hunching over himself.
“Would you like some tea?” Not-Tillie asked again.
“Can you turn it off?” I asked.
“She is not a machine, Cog,” Udo said. “Shits and shades, give my magic more credit than that.”
Then he turned to the Not-Tillie, shoulders sagging. His voice gentled to a near-whisper.
“Love, will you give us a moment? Perhaps some more tea and biscuits?”
Not-Tillie moved, rising from the chair. There was a hiss as flowers and branches and cloth rubbed against the floor and table. Not-Tillie’s movements were not as fluid as her shape; she moved in quick, jerky steps. Not a machine, Udo said, though she moved like one. She reminded me of the calash I rode in on before I gave it a bit of luck.
I should be disgusted. Udo created a live-in memory for his grief, the depraved old man. Tis true, Tillis would be heartbroken at such a sight, but Tillie forgave. It was her warmth as well as her fault. A pacifist who lured Udo away from being the Stark Summoner, convinced him to travel the continent with her instead. And he did. He left it all behind.
That doesn’t mean I forgave him.
Not-Tillie rustled out of the room, toward the back of the cottage and her bedroom. I watched, remembering the silhouette of the real Tillie, my Tillie, as she waved to us before going to bed. Sometimes Udo and I stayed up for hours, playing cards while he quizzed me on spells and the etiquettes of summoning.
“Etiquette,” Udo used to gag at the word. “As if magic were polite. But best to be knowledgeable. All ambassadors have imperial courtiers up their arse.”
A knock on the window of the breakfast nook startled me from the memory. I turned toward it as Udo swore under his breath.
The figure at the window was another Udo.
Or, rather, a soul of it. Like most wandering souls, they were monochromatic, without color, like beings in a glass negative. The soul was slightly taller than Udo, fuzzy at the edges. This one also had the long hair and beard from my memories.
The soul knocked on the window again.
“Tillie said let the flowers grow,” it said.
“Aye,” the real Udo said.
“Let the flowers grow,” it said.
Udo nodded. The soul repeated the phrase a half dozen more times, and instead of growing impatient, as Udo often did, he nodded. This was almost worse than the Not-Tillie, a conversation of repetition.
“The mayor brought me here to take care of them,” I said to Udo.
“Tillie said let the flowers grow,” the soul at the window said.
Udo nodded, and I couldn’t tell if it was directed at me or the soul.
“I am going to do it with or without your help,” I said.
Udo looked up at me, eye-to-eye, and I prepared myself to flinch as I’d done as a child. Then it dawned on me…his piercing gaze was no longer as sharp as it was.
“And what, pray tell, can a gentle summoner do with souls?” Udo asked. He tried to sound mocking, but even I could tell he was too tired. His outburst earlier drained much.
“True, most gentle summoners can’t handle souls,” I began, “they deal with animals and plants, but rarely more. It’s like you said: you taught me everything you know.”
Udo nodded, a quirk in his lips. “That I did.”
“…flowers grow,” the soul continued in the background.
I stood from my chair, taking the scissors from my pocket. Udo’s gaze fell on the shears, the ornate decoration, and he jerked back at the sight. He pinched the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
“Tillie’s scissors,” he said, voice wobbly.
“Aye.” My voice was soft.
Udo inhaled sharply and blinked. He nodded to the soul at the window. “Let’s see what you can do then, gentle summoner. Bring that sorry soul back to me.”
I clutched the handles of the scissors as I went back out the way I came, past the door hanging limp on the hinges, to meet the soul head-on. Glancing briefly over my shoulder, I saw Udo at the table, his fists balled tight on the tabletop, knuckles bleached white. He was readying himself to add a piece back that he had cut away. What I was going to do would not be pleasant for either of us. Nor for the souls, for that matter.
Speaking of which, I turned back to the shade in front of me. Its shoulder slumped forward. A sorry soul, indeed.
“Tillie said…” the soul began.
I snipped a lock of hair. “Aye, Udo. We’ll let the flowers grow as long as she wants.”
A gentle summoner was what one called a summoner who didn’t meddle with souls, also known as shades. Souls were either people who have not moved on from this life, or have had part of them ripped away, with or without consent. A stark summoner was a master of souls. A Stark Summoner of the Realm is the master of souls.
And Udo had ripped himself apart.
Evening bled forth. Three piles of blue ash littered the cottage. Three souls returned.
“Tillie said let the flowers grow.”
“No more braids for bows.”
“Two sugars in warm milk.”
Udo and I were scattered in the kitchen. Water boiled in the kettle on the wood-burning stove. Instead of sitting at the table, we were sprawled on our backs on the floor. Udo lay near the stove, curled into a fetal position. Taking back souls into yourself is like overcoming a fever, both literally and figuratively. The body needs to readjust, and it often fights.
After the first soul outside the window, Udo slumped in his chair, his breathing ragged. I was about to look in on Udo, when the other two shades showed up, beckoned by the magic.
“No more braids for bows.”
“Two sugars in warm milk.”
I called through the doorway. “We’ll need to bind them for the night. I don’t want them frightening the villagers anymore.”
Udo had snarled in his chair.
“Don’t pity me, Cog. Do what you came for.”
I gritted my teeth. I obliged.
Now my hands blistered, singed at the fingertips despite the locks of hair I offered.
The act of meddling with souls felt greasy to me. Wrong. Like holding a hand over an open flame despite my nerves begging for mercy. Udo raised me to be a stark summoner, but every time we meddled, every time I watched him work—exorcisms, soul-snatching, leading wandering souls to fruition—imprisonment of souls…my stomach bottomed out. I grew anxious and sick. It was not the life I wanted. I told Tillie I wasn’t strong enough, but she scolded me. She didn’t like the phrase.
“Strength has nothing to do with it,” she told me. “Few can handle the life of a stark summoner, and it takes its toll. You are not trapped in it, Cog.”
She was right. Because I was strong enough. I had given Udo back three shades of himself.
“Fuck,” Udo said near the stove. “Forgot how much this hurts.”
A shiver ran down his spine, and I watched him curl in on himself to weather it.
“Don’t lie, old man,” I gasped from the other side of the kitchen, holding my injured hands to my chest. “You’ve never done this before.”
Udo chuckled, which morphed into a grunt of pain. “Aye, ya smartass,” he said, ragged. “But neither have you.”
We laughed, two whimpering fools. Were Tillie here, she’d stomp her feet and loom over us.
“Bit full of ourselves, aren’t we?” she’d say. “Two stubborn rocks.”
The thought of it was so clear, so real, that I whimpered, hugged myself even harder. Udo must’ve thought it due to my burns because he grunted again and said, a bit gentler, “The pain will pass, Cog. Your hands are strong.”
I shook my head against the floor, squeeze the sting from my eyes.
“How many more are there?” I asked, my voice a croak.
Silence across the kitchen. A piece of wood crackled in the stove.
Then Udo sighed. “Two.”
Shades. He made five. Even in the training texts of my youth, I’d only read so much as three or four.
“Why?” I couldn’t help but yelp the word. The idea of two more was not only painful but ludicrous. Udo knew better. Had any other stark summoner done this act—for any reason—he’d have told them they didn’t deserve the title.
A shiver wracked Udo’s body and he strained against it.
“I was not—am not—myself,” he said.
I wanted to snort, clearly, since he tore himself into five shades.
“Cogadhi,” Udo said, and I started at the mention of my full name. “Before you. Before Tillie. ‘Twas a lonely life. Stark Summoner of the Realm. I was not a good man. I don’t claim otherwise. But then I found you. And then Tillie found me. And when she went wanderin’ I—I couldn’t bear the thought of going back.”
“To being a Stark Summoner?” I asked.
“Nay,” Udo said. “To being by myself.”
His voice broke at the last word. He did not have his cloak or long hair to shield his face, and I watched as his cheeks and eyes squeezed shut, morphing through emotions I could not name. He rolled over, toward the stove, muttering under his breath.
“Shades,” he said and began to cry.
For a moment, I could not fathom the sound. It’d been years since I witnessed such emotion from him. He saved his most vulnerable moments for Tillie, but Udo was always dramatic in some fashion. It usually manifested as anger or complaining. But this was a cleansing cry, one he seemed to have held onto since Tillie’s passing. He would not have trusted these sounds, uncontrolled and sloppy, with someone else. It was not a shoulder to lean on; I lay at the other end of the kitchen. But it was a space. Safe.
With shaking hands, I reached for my scissors. I snipped some strands of hair and let it crumble to blue ash in my palm. Wincing, I waved at the door. A hinge appeared and the door stood erect, bolted back to the doorframe.
It closed with a soft click.
• • • •
Sunlight. My eyes were closed. The blood of my eyelids was luminous and bright. Warmth spread on my face.
Then a shadow draped over me.
“Rough night, gentle summoner?” A voice asked. I could not help the smile on my lips. It was a lush feeling in comparison to the chills from the evening, the magic taking its toll on my body and hands.
Chess’s voice dripped like warm milk on a cold morning.
I opened my eyes and looked up from the floor.
“Has the fog lifted?” I asked, nodding to the sunlight beaming behind her. Chess looked over her shoulder, tilting the front tip of her bowler hat up.
“Aye,” she said. “Better at least. Only mist on the ground, and there are two shades left by my count.”
I pushed against the floor to sit up. My back stiffened, muscles buckling with aches. A plush bed would do me good when this was all over.
“Two shades left,” I confirmed. “I did not see them near the house yesterday.”
“They’re roaming,” Chess said, nodding toward the back of the cottage. “Closer to the woods where the blackberries grow. Our foragers won’t go there.”
The kitchen was empty save for Chess and I. Udo must’ve left earlier in the morning.
“Have you seen him?” I asked.
Chess shrugged. “Not yet this morning.”
“Would you like some tea?”
I yelped at Tillie’s voice, clutching my chest. Not-Tillie sat at the table, arms folded in her lap. Wildflowers and bows frayed every which way.
“Sorry,” Chess said. “I should have mentioned she was here.”
Chess sounded unflustered, which likely meant she’d been around Not-Tillie more than once at least. My face flushed, realizing I’d made a shades-damn fool of myself. Again.
I cleared my throat. “No need to apologize. I had almost forgotten about…her.” I had the urge to call the reanimated memory an “it” but after last night, it didn’t seem right. Whatever Not-Tillie was, however wrong it felt to hear her voice coming out of such a creation, she helped Udo. Not-Tillie would have to be dealt with eventually, but for now—
“Would you like some tea?” Not-Tillie asked again.
I put on a limp smile, shaking my head. “No, thank you.”
Chess reached under her mass of curls and scratched her neck. “You sure about that, Cog? A stout tea would do wonders to that bleak pallor.”
She had a point.
“True, but I’ll make it,” I said. “Whatever brew Udo drank last night tasted like raw dandelions.”
Chess laughed again. The sound warmed me further, and I stood with renewed vigor. My limbs ached at all the joints. My back screamed for mercy. All the while, Not-Tillie sat calmly at the table, completely unlike the Tillie I remembered. She’d be a whir of movement, poking us out of the way or giving us a job to do around the house. A bow, bright periwinkle, fell from the side of Not Tillie’s head to the floor, though she didn’t seem to mind. That was like Tillie; she didn’t let minor failures put a dent in her day. I walked to the stove, groaning with each step, to find the kettle.
There was much left to be done. But Chess’s company started the morning right, with tea forthcoming.
Summons Away Home
Chess helped me set the kitchen to rights, or at least, to the best we could in an hour. We drank tea with one hand and swept the floor with Udo’s brooms. He carved them himself, and he would have loathed to see us using them so whimsically. Chess twirled hers up in the ceiling corners, letting the spiders crawl onto the bristles and then taking them outside for them to crawl away.
“Can the mice stay?” Chess asked as she watched one scurry from one hole to another.
“Aside from a spell, I couldn’t make them leave if I wanted to,” I said.
Chess laughed. I couldn’t help but chuckle as well. Chess cleaned like a child, finding fascination and play in it. After a while, I couldn’t help but ask.
“Why mayor, Chess?” I asked. “Did you always want to run a town?”
Chess twirled the broom, then gently brushed a beetle out the door into the grass.
“Off you go, wee jade one,” she murmured to it, then louder to me. “Nay, if you had asked me two years ago about becoming mayor, I would’ve laughed in your face. At my roots, I’m a paleoclimatologist. I researched modes of ancient pollution and crafted models, magic or otherwise, on how to avoid the same ruts. I was about to apprentice at the Continental Consortium before Berkhammer called to me.”
The Consortium accepted few members in its century-old history. I stopped sweeping, leaning on the tip of the broom.
“You skipped the Consortium for this place?”
Chess grinned, pointing at my nose. “Ah, that face. That scrunch of skin. Tis everyone’s reaction to this story. Berkhammer is a place devoted to healing. The miners left, the place was sick, and people came together to heal it. It’s a climatologist’s dream. Originally, I came here to study the town and write my thesis on the capacity for collective avoidance. What is it summoners say? A soul is called to multiple hearts?”
“Hmmm,” I said. “Yes.” An optimist’s mantra, used in the early days of apprenticing, to add enchantment and a sense of purpose to summoning. I’d nearly forgotten it.
I realized that yes, Tillie doted on everyone, but now I wondered whether she especially loved Chess’s brightness and surety.
Finished cleaning, Chess downed the rest of her tea to the dregs. She tipped her hat.
“I believe that’s all I can offer this morning,” Chess said. “I’m due to help thatch Birchil’s roof this morning. She and her wife want to avoid leaks before the rainy season, what with the baby and all.”
Chess described the matter as if I knew all along about Birchil and her wife.
“Mayor, paleoclimatalogist, and thatcher?” I asked and leaned my broom against the wall by the door. Chess handed me her broom to put away as well.
Chess clucked her tongue. “Being mayor is not so different from being a summoner. I must know everything there is to know about my town, as you do about souls.”
“I certainly don’t claim to know everything about souls,” I said.
Chess lifted a shoulder. “Nor I about Berkhammer. But I’m open to knowing.”
As she brushed past me to the door, she held out her hand. “Until next time, gentle summoner.”
I took her hand. There was such solace to her warm skin. “I do hope so, mayor.”
“My guess is Udo is by the blackberry bushes, where the other shades roam,” she said. “About a hundred steps or so beyond the cottage.”
I nodded, not looking forward to the meeting. Chess squeezed my hand and said nothing more. She walked out the front door whistling a ballad that sounded familiar—haunting yet bright—but I couldn’t place the tune.
• • • •
Udo sat amid the tall grass. I found him where Chess guessed he would be. He was cross-legged, hands in his lap, eyes closed. Sprouts of blackberry bushes pock-marked the tall grass, leading to a dense forest. Even in daylight, the forest looked dark, its canopy thick with leaves.
My trodding steps signaled my approach, but Udo said nothing. The wind blew soft, cool, and I am glad I found one of Tillie’s shawls to wrap around my shoulders before leaving the cottage.
I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Udo. Crossed my legs. My knees resisted; the muscles still angry from the strain of the previous night. I grunted, adjusting my posture in the grass.
“You could never sit quietly,” Udo said, eyes closed. “Loud as a fucking clap of thunder in a nursery.”
“It’s your fault,” I said. “I’m sore from cleaning up your mess.”
“Ah, my mess,” Udo said. He wasn’t mocking me. Each word sounded quiet and slow.
Udo opened his eyes and nodded to the tree line. I saw nothing at first, but then I noticed them. Two shades, standing a few feet apart, watching us. I reached under my shawl for my scissors, but Udo was faster. His wrinkled hand closed over mine.
“A moment, Cog,” Udo said.
The shades were hesitant, but they left the forest together, walking slowly to us. The grass passed through them. They made no sound as they took seats across from us in the grass.
“May I escort you to dinner?” one asked.
Udo hummed in the back of his throat. “This shade is from when I first met Tillie. It’s what I asked her when I began to court her. Do you know what she said?”
I shook my head, staring at him.
Udo turned to face me fully. “She said no. I was crushed, of course, about to turn around, when she called after me. ‘I detest formal dinners,’ she said. ‘You may escort me to dessert.’”
“Ice cream?” I asked.
“Of course,” Udo said.
The other shade fidgeted, looking over its shoulder back into the copse of trees.
“I would follow you,” it said.
“Ah, and that one.” Udo took a shaky breath. “It’s the last thing I said to Tillie. You can imagine what her response was, before she drifted off.”
“She said no,” I said. There were tears on my cheeks. I didn’t know when I started crying.
“Aye,” Udo said. “She said no.”
His hand still rested on my own, over the pocket where Tillie’s scissors rested. The shades got up, turned back toward the forest, and began to walk away.
“They’ll not bother anyone,” Udo said. “Not anymore.”
I said nothing, only watched as the two shades reached the tree line and disappeared into the forest. Perhaps I would seek them out later, trim more bits of my hair, create blue ash in my palm and return them to Udo’s body. He would weather it, and he would understand why it must be done.
He tore himself apart because of Tillie’s absence, and would it not be best that I reassemble him to completion? Would it not be righteous?
My fingers loosened around the scissors and fell into my lap. Udo’s hand stayed with me. He used to cuff the back of my head when I was a terror around the cottage, or when I lashed out. He used to pat my head awkwardly when I did something right. He never held my hand before.
From the trees, whispers faded into the wind.
“May I escort you to dinner?”
“I would follow you.”
There was so much left to be done. I knew this. But for now, the sun rose higher in the sky. I could see parts of Berkhammer that I hadn’t noticed before in the dense fog. Hills. Old mining shacks grown over into tiny chapels of vines and moss. The air was fresh. In the distance there was laughter. A goat bleated. Cicadas took up a loud drawl.
And blossoms. Brightly colored, with stems growing as long as we let them. As long as they want.
Everywhere, there were wildflowers.