Gudrun plunked herself down in the grass, her back against the side of the sod house. The guests were feasting, and the funeral ale was flowing, so she could indulge her grief a moment. Almighty gods, had Ketill been dead a week already?
In the distance, the last of the smoke from his funeral pyre drifted over the horse fields. Beyond that, clear on the horizon, lay the green hill of Graenheth. Souls went into that hill on their way to the Forever Shore. Right now, Ketill would be inside, beyond the setting sun, past the troll who guarded the entrance to the land of the dead. He would be roaming the endless expanse of beach, sea cliffs, and tide pools, one soul among millions. A soul could wander that beach forever, searching in vain for a beloved.
She knew without a doubt that he was there, beyond her reach, because she could see the love-lines they shared. Theirs were still thick as whale bones and brilliant scarlet, a testament to their passion. They ran from her out across the hills and waving grass, translucent red ribbons that ran unerringly toward Graenheth. So Ketill truly was there, even though her mind refused to grasp it. She thought she might go mad with the need to touch him again.
Around her, as the guests roared and lifted overflowing tankards to the midnight sun, the love-lines of friends and family filled the valley. The ones for Ketill all stretched west, toward Graenheth and the Forever Shore. Yellow for familial love, green for friendship, their width and depth of color showed how close each person had been to Ketill. They stretched through the air like bits of a splintered rainbow, he’d been so beloved.
How she wanted to follow the lines, to track Ketill down and throw her arms around him. They’d been a good pair, the two of them, since he brought her from Egleby five years before. And she would follow them if she could. Here in the valley the islanders thought her a witch because she could see the love-lines and they could not. Her life would be hard among them now, without Ketill’s protection. But she couldn’t go into the hill, not now. She would not dishonor Ketill by cutting short his full year of mourning rites.
As if to reinforce how alone she was, Solvi, Ketill’s son from his first marriage, banged his tankard on the funeral bench and cried, “We’ll avenge my father! We’ll see justice done!”
The guests roared, and hard glances turned toward her. As usual. She should stay silent, but her eyes ached from weeping, and she was in no mood for Solvi’s self-centered boasting.
“How will you avenge him?” she asked, low. “Desecrate the horse that struck him?”
Silence, and for a moment she thought the guests were pondering how best to dismember Tanni, Ketill’s favorite horse. They’d already slaughtered the poor beast for what he’d done.
Then: “That horse never hurt him before!”
“No horse ever hurt him.”
“He was the island’s best horse breaker.”
“Horse musta been magicked!”
Solvi raised his hand, still clutching his eating knife, and pointed a shaking finger at her. “You were the last person in the horse fields before the stallion kicked him. What do you have to say for yourself, witch?”
She opened her mouth, snapped it shut. At the time of Ketill’s death, she’d been following a pair of love-lines, intent on discovering who shared a secret crush. In Egleby, her matchmaking stall had thrived, and she missed the work. But these guests with their spears and axes didn’t want to hear about love-lines.
“I did not kill him.”
“What were you doing in the field?”
The looks they gave her—anger, fear, hatred—she knew what they meant. Ketill was burned, his soul safely beyond the setting sun on the Forever Shore. No matter what they did to her, his ghost would not haunt them.
She shot to her feet. Just in time, as she scrambled to dodge a rock that thumped into the turf wall where her head had been.
She ran. A stone bashed her shoulder, sending her tumbling into the grass. A cheer went up, and she scrambled to her feet, terror drying her tears. She sprinted past the horse fields, past Ketill’s cooling pyre, the jeers loud behind her. Her shoulder stung.
She crested the hill and plunged into the valley below, plowing through waving grass. Finally, two valleys over, she stopped. Panting, her hand to the cramp in her side, she scanned the horizon from the glacier-capped volcanos behind to the far-distant sea in front. No one was following; she was alone with the love-lines.
Instinctively she stepped toward Graenheth, toward Ketill. She had no reason not to go there now. By chasing her away, Solvi had exiled her. No farmstead would give her shelter, no ship captain would grant her passage. Without supplies, she would not survive the winter or complete the mourning rites. Better to drown herself and forego the misery.
But dead, she wouldn’t see love-lines. The priests were clear: no unnatural abilities survived death. And she had to see the lines. Without them she would never find Ketill, not on the endless shore.
If she wanted to see him again, to touch him, she’d have to go now, lack of supplies be damned.
“Ketill,” she whispered, “I’m coming.”
She struck out across the rippling grasses, Graenheth small and sheer in the distance, a good day’s journey away. Hour after hour, she walked, beyond sleep, driven by longing, until Graenheth loomed tall, a flat-topped hill of green and gold jutting from the ground. Two ravens called from its top, a grim sign. She shaded her eyes, though her arms felt heavy as boulders. Her mind was muddy, refusing to focus. But she’d made it, even if she had no idea how to get inside the hill.
She eyed Ketill’s love-lines, hoping they would show her. Except they didn’t go inside. They kept going, past Graenheth to the shore behind.
She gaped. Was Ketill’s soul lost?
No, all the love-lines led past the hill to the shore. Old, faded lines and new, sharp ones alike.
So, if he wasn’t where all the priests and his family said he was, where was he?
She trudged around the base of the hill and down the grassy slope behind until she stood on the edge of a sea cliff, waves crashing below. To her left, a river drained into the sea, ice chunks from the distant glacier riding high. In the bay, black rock arches braced the shore and stood as sea stacks in the water. The love-lines flowed past them, converging on one black pinnacle of rock halfway to the horizon.
“I don’t know how to get there, either,” a voice said.
Gudrun jumped. Crouched in a rock cleft was a small black-and-white dog. Green friendship love-lines ran from it to the black pinnacle and back.
“You’re trying to cross over too, yes?” the dog asked when she didn’t respond.
Gudrun breathed hard through her nose. Too many shocks, one after another, were making her slow.
She picked her words carefully. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
The dog cocked its head. “You can smell the passing souls, too?”
“I see the love you shared with someone now in the rock.”
“My horse friend, Astrid. She had saddle sores and didn’t want to be ridden, so the man hit her until she didn’t get up. I miss her.”
“I’m sorry,” Gudrun said again, now for all humans, because they did terrible things to animals. “How is it I understand you?”
“In choosing to come here, we’ve taken the first step into Death’s domain. Things are different here. Why do humans ask such obvious questions?”
“It’s not obvious to me. Humans and dogs experience the world in different ways.”
The dog nodded, satisfied. “My name’s Bjorn. Whom are you trying to reach?”
“My husband, Ketill. My name is Gudrun.”
Bjorn barked, grinning a doggie grin. “That’s why you smell so good!” He limped toward her and pressed his nose into her leg. His head came about to her knee. “The man had a daughter named Gudrun. She was kind to me, until she clasped hands with another and moved away.”
“Did ‘the man’ do this to you?” Gudrun reached for his front right paw. It oozed from a puncture wound.
Bjorn snapped at her, growling. She jerked her hand back and pressed it to her chest.
At once, his ears and tail went down. He slunk toward her, eyes wide as a puppy’s. “I’m sorry. It hurts.”
“It looks deep.” She sat on her heels. “May I see?”
Slowly he held out his paw. She took it carefully, but he whimpered.
“It’ll be my death,” he said. “I smell it.”
He spoke truth. The wound was far along and festering. She pulled the kerchief from her hair and wrapped it around his paw.
“So you don’t hurt it more.”
He licked her chin, and her face warmed in delight. It was the first happiness she’d felt in a week. Just like that, tendrils of green friendship stretched between them.
“It’s good to have a nice human to travel with,” Bjorn said, sitting back on his haunches. “How do you think we can get over?”
She frowned at the waves crashing below. “It’s too far to swim, even if we could get past those breakers.”
“Do you have a boat?”
“No, and no one would lend me one.” She hesitated. “You—you could just end your life, you know.”
He blinked at her. “Maybe for humans. We dogs don’t do that. Why haven’t you?”
“I won’t see love-lines if I’m dead. And the love-lines will lead me straight to Ketill. No wandering the Shore.”
“Oh! I’m staying with you. So how do we get over?”
“I don’t know.” She couldn’t bear that this might be the end, that she would have to face Solvi’s wrath instead of reconciling with Ketill. “If only we could walk on the love-lines. They would take us right over.”
Bjorn’s ears perked up. “That’s perfect. Let’s walk now.”
“We can’t. The lines are light, like a rainbow. We can’t walk on light.”
“Oh.” His ears dropped. “I hoped they were more solid.”
“No.” She tapped her chin, thinking. They couldn’t swim. They didn’t have a boat, and she wasn’t about to go back. But she did have a talking dog, so maybe she should start thinking of other ways around her problem. “Since you can talk to me, could you talk some seals or whales into taking us out to the rock?”
He cocked his head. “Maybe, if they were here, and if we had something they wanted.”
Neither was true, so she tried another direction. “You said we were in Death’s domain. How did you know this?”
He whimpered and ducked his head. “The man—he was a sorcerer.”
Gudrun shivered. Sorcerers were dark and dangerous men who used runes to write evil spells. No wonder Bjorn had whimpered.
She knelt down. “Is there anything else the man told you that could help us? A spell to calm the waters? Or to conjure a boat?”
Bjorn growled deep in his throat. “He knew a spell to magnify fear.”
Her heart went out to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories. I won’t ask again.”
Bjorn nodded, tight, then nuzzled her knee so she knew they were all right. She stood, surveying the distant rock, and mulled over his words.
As a matchmaker, she’d learned enough writing to carve a rune for the occasional love charm. And now she knew there was a spell that could increase fear. So maybe here in Death’s domain, where things were different, there was a way to use her rune to help them. She wasn’t sure how, but it was a start.
“Think you could get me a fist-sized rock? As flat as possible?” She pointed to the riverbank.
Bjorn thumped his tail. “I love fetching!”
He hobbled to the river, limping so badly that Gudrun regretted asking him. Then he gave a yip of delight and grabbed a rock with his jaws.
He dropped it at her feet. “I got it! Didn’t I do well?”
She laughed at his glee. “Very well.”
As she picked up the rock, she realized she’d just laughed for the first time in a week. It felt good.
“So what are you going to do?” Bjorn asked.
“I know one rune to use in love charms. I use it to strengthen love-lines. I wonder if that can help us.”
Bjorn nodded. “The man said words when he carved his runes. I didn’t like to listen. They hurt my ears.”
“Words have power. It’s true.” Witch. Dead. Justice. These weren’t spells, but they had changed her life.
Her eating knife hung from a brooch on her dress. Thank the gods she had adopted the islander custom of carrying it with her at all times. She untied the string that held it and used it to carve into the stone the rune she knew, whispering the spell to strengthen love-lines. When she was done, she surveyed the love-lines in front of her. She couldn’t choose her line or Bjorn’s, because those would move with them as they crossed over the sea. She needed a line that would stay still. She needed—there. A scarlet line as wide as a narrow branch ran east into the volcanos. It came from someone on the other side of the peaks, so it should not move much.
She prayed and jabbed the rock into the red line. The line flared, growing brighter and wider, but the rock fell through. It thudded on the ground.
Her heart sank. Bjorn whined and nosed the rock.
She picked it up. “Maybe a spell to thicken a woman’s womb, something that will make the line more solid.”
Again she whispered her words and jabbed the rock in. This time it sank slowly through the line before thudding to the ground.
“It almost worked!” Bjorn said. “Try again.”
She did, this time with a spell to stiffen a man during love-play. But again the rock sank through before landing by her feet.
Bjorn hung his head. He didn’t bother to push the rock toward her this time. “What else can we do?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. She picked up the rock and squeezed it tightly. “I don’t know any other spells to try.”
She wished she could ask what spells the sorcerer had used, but she had promised not to. She didn’t dare suggest they ask the sorcerer for help. Together, she and Bjorn would have to come up with another plan.
Together. Yes! She had overlooked a crucial aspect of the love-lines. They were connected at both ends, flavored by both the lover and beloved. On this island, that usually meant male and female. But she had tried a spell for each gender in turn. Maybe if she combined them, it would work.
“Almighty gods,” she prayed. “Make this work.”
She breathed deep, intoned a combination of the spells, then jabbed the rock into the line. It held.
She had a moment to marvel, then Bjorn nosed her leg.
“It worked! Let’s go!”
“Patience.” She ran her hand along the solid ribbon of red, testing it, hardly believing her words had worked. “It’s only as wide as a branch, and slippery as ice.” Which made a sort of sense, since rainbows happened when sunlight hit spray, and water turned into ice. So when she’d stiffened the line, it had followed its rainbow nature and crystalized into a ribbon of ice. She would rather the line had turned into something less slippery, but she’d take what she could get.
Buoyed, she retied her knife and tucked it on its string into her neckline so it would not get in her way as they crossed. Then she hiked up her skirts and climbed onto the red ribbon, straddling it. It was cold and slick against her fingers, and she wished she had her ice spikes.
When the ice didn’t break under her weight, she boosted Bjorn up behind her. “Hold onto my skirts. I don’t want you falling.”
Bjorn whined, but he snagged the hem of her skirt as she scooched forward her first hesitant armlengths. The ribbon was slick and narrow, but there was no other way. Bjorn’s claws clicked behind her, and she thought about this rather than peering into the blue-gray waters below, rather than dwelling on how cold her hands and legs were. If only she had her mittens.
The black pinnacle of rock grew closer, but the journey seemed never ending. No matter how she shifted along, the ribbon seemed to stretched ever longer. The sun inched across the sky, past the midday mark, and still she was creeping along over the blue-gray water far below, and now her skirts and fingers were wet.
She gasped. “The ice is melting!”
She crept faster, her palms slapping the ribbon. If only it were wider. If only she could run.
A crack sounded, a breaking of the air, and the ribbon swayed. She grabbed hold, her heartbeat thrumming in all the corners of her body.
“It’s crumbling in the middle!” Bjorn yelled.
She moved as fast as she could, Bjorn yipping that the ice was cracking behind his tail, until black showed beneath red, and she collapsed on a ledge of black rock. Bjorn nosed into her side, whimpering. She held him, savoring his warmth. The love-line cracked and popped and then it was nothing but a translucent ribbon again. Raising her hand, she passed her fingers through it.
The ledge could fit her and Bjorn and not much more. Warmth radiated up, returning the heat of the sun, but the air was chilly and the wind biting. Bits of gray lichen spotted the rock, and the air smelled of bird droppings, but no birds perched nearby. On this small space, it was just her and Bjorn and a startlingly long drop off the edge to the foaming waves below.
After a moment to warm her fingers in Bjorn’s fur, she ran her hands over the rock face at the back of the ledge. The love-line went into the rock at chest height. Other lines—red and yellow and green—dove in around it.
“How do we get in?” Bjorn hobbled up beside her.
The rock was warm from the sun and smooth from the wind, but hard and—“Oh! A door!”
Hidden in a split in the rock, a black corridor barely as wide as her shoulders led into darkness. Far at the end, light gleamed, colored red and yellow and green by love-lines.
“Think that’s the Forever Shore?” Bjorn asked, tilting his head toward the light.
“I wish, but I think we have a ways to go. Past the setting sun and a guardian troll, right?”
Bjorn sighed and nodded.
“Let me carry you,” Gudrun said. The kerchief around his paw was nearly soaked through.
“I can walk,” Bjorn protested, but not too much, and he snuggled against her shoulder as she stepped into the corridor.
It wasn’t far. After a walk through cool, musty rock, the corridor took a sharp elbow turn to the right. She peeked around the rock and met painfully bright light.
“Ow!” She jerked back, slamming her eyes shut.
Bjorn nuzzled her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Back in the corridor, she blinked, spots dancing in her vision. “I’m all right, but I don’t know how to walk through that. If I look too long, I’ll go blind.”
“Can you feel your way?”
“Maybe, but if I fall, we’re both going down. And I don’t want either of us getting burned or blinded or worse. That’s the setting sun we have to get past, isn’t it?”
Bjorn whined, his ears back, but he said, “Let me lead. I’ll sniff out the path, and only have to peek a little.”
“But your paw…”
“Better my paw than your sight. We need that. Here, tie some cloth as a rope around my middle so I can lead you.”
There had to be a better way, but she couldn’t think of one. She pulled her trusty knife from her neckline, chopped cloth from her skirt, and tied the leash around his chest. She tied another bandage around his paw, too. “Lead on.”
It was disconcerting, walking with her eyes closed, the tugging of the leash telling her to go right or left. The air grew warm, then uncomfortably hot. She wiped her face and wished for water. How big could the sun be? Shouldn’t they be past it by now? Still she padded over rock as fine as salt, bracing herself for the lurch of the leash that would signal disaster.
Then the air cooled, the brightness dimmed, and Bjorn yipped that she could open her eyes.
He led her out a doorway to a narrow path. Sunshine streamed down, not too bright. On either side were black rock shapes—columns, mounds, keyholes through which she could see the summer-blue sky. The white full moon rode high beside the sun.
Seeing that, she shivered. “We’re not in the old world anymore.”
Bjorn wriggled. “I hear waves. Just beyond that bend. The Forever Shore must be close!”
She untied his leash, and he surged ahead, then froze, his hair standing on edge.
“What?” Gudrun demanded.
She was answered by a troll rounding the bend.
He stood twice her height and three times her breadth, with black knobby skin to match the rocks. “Go away. You’re not dead.”
He was much larger than she’d expected. Still she said, “Let us pass. We made the journey. It’s your duty to let us pass.”
“My duty is to keep the land of the dead for the dead. Now go.” He shooed with his hands.
Bjorn growled, light glinting on his teeth. He jumped, biting into the troll’s shin. The troll hissed and swatted, barely missing as Bjorn ducked away.
“Stop!” Gudrun called. Bjorn was staggering, and he might have been a gnat for all his bite had done. The path showed red where he walked.
Bjorn glared at her, but he must have thought better of his attack, because his ears went down, and he limped to her side. The troll strode forward, forcing them back up the path. Black rock rose sharp and straight on both sides. The door to the corridor loomed at their backs.
“I’ll give you one of my brooches,” she told the troll, “if you let us pass. See how it sparkles?”
“What good would that do? The rocks sparkle even more.”
“What about this glass bead necklace? My husband gave it to me as a wedding present.”
The troll snorted, making Bjorn start. “I don’t need your wedding present. Go away.”
“You could have my knife,” she said, though it pained her. “It’s small and sharp.”
“Take your knife and leave me alone!”
At the forcefulness of his cry, she backed into the brightly lit corridor, Bjorn stumbling behind her. But as she looked despairingly out to the path they’d left behind, a red love-line caught her attention. It ran from the troll to a column of rock.
The troll was in love with a rock? No—a more brilliant line ran from him to the Forever Shore. His beloved was there.
“Come on,” Bjorn whispered, pressing against her. “Maybe we can get in another way.”
What other way was there?
“Whom do you love?” she asked the troll, hoping to buy time. “Who’s waiting for you on the Shore?”
The troll froze. He stared at her, his black nostrils flared.
“You love someone very much,” she continued, stepping back onto the path, puzzling out the connection between his two love lines, one a pale echo of the other. “And someone—no something she gave you, something you connect with her, is over in the rock.”
The troll narrowed his eyes. “What do you know of my loves?”
“I see the love-lines between people and the things they love. A line connects you to something over there. Is it a jewel? A letter?” She guessed wildly, not knowing what trolls held dear. Then a thought occurred: “A knife? Did you lose your knife? You don’t carry one.” This even though he had a knife loop on his belt like the islander men had. “Is that why you yelled at me when I offered mine?”
The troll’s eyes grew as wide as the moon. “If you get my knife back, I’ll let you stay. Both of you.”
She clasped her hands together, full of hope. “Where is it?”
The troll pointed to the top of one of the rocky mounds, nearly as tall as he was. “It fell into a crack in the rock, and I can’t get it out.”
“I’ll try,” Gudrun said. “Only I don’t know how to get up there.”
The troll picked her up. She gasped, but then she was on top of the mound. The crack in the rock was thin, but not so thin she couldn’t reach her arm inside. At the bottom, the knife lay on a bed of snow that hadn’t melted, even in endless daylight. It was big—maybe three times bigger than hers—and thin and black as the rock.
She lay down and stretched her arm inside, but she couldn’t reach. So she sat up, untied her knife and angled it into the crack. Maybe she could use it to tip the troll’s knife up. But even with her knife, her reach was too short.
Desperate, she snipped the string that had held her knife. Tying the end into a loop, she lowered the lasso into the crack. If she could snag the knife, she could lift it up. If—ha! The loop caught.
She pulled, careful, careful, the black blade sparkling in the faint light. The string tightened, and snap! The knife fell back on its bed of snow.
“No!” She hauled the string up. It had been cut cleanly in half. How sharp the blade was!
Something touched her leg. She flinched, nearly dropping her string.
“I can get it!” Bjorn said.
“How’d you get up here?”
“Hallr.” He nodded to the troll, who was plucking impatiently at his tunic.
“The blade’s really sharp. And your paw’s hurt. Are you sure you can get it?”
“I got us past the sun. I’ll get the knife.”
Bjorn nodded and squeezed down into the crack. It was very narrow, but he was a small dog. As Gudrun held her breath, he jumped down, leaving red footprints on the lip of the rock. Then he yipped once, twice.
“Bjorn, are you okay?”
No answer. Had he yipped in victory? Pain?
Then he was wriggling up, scrabbling with his back legs. She grabbed hold and hauled him up.
“Did you get it?”
He whimpered. The knife clattered onto the rock.
“You got it!”
Blood splattered her arm. So much blood. Where was it coming from?
She turned Bjorn in her arms. “How are you hurt? Is it your paw?”
He whined. Blood matted his snout. “Find Astrid,” he whispered.
She struggled to understand him. Holding him close, she saw the deep cuts that crisscrossed his lips.
“You were supposed to grab the handle!”
“Couldn’t reach,” he slurred. His head flopped against her wrist. His eyes fluttered.
“Bjorn!” She pressed the edge of her skirt against his lips. Blood soaked the cloth. His tail flicked limply. “Hold on, Bjorn.”
“You got it!” The troll, Hallr, plucked up his knife. “Is the dog okay?”
“His name’s Bjorn,” she snapped. He wasn’t moving. She laid her hand on his chest. It didn’t move, either. She bowed her head.
“I’m sorry,” Hallr said.
“He was a good dog,” she whispered, fighting back tears. “He only wanted to be with his friend.”
“Now he can, if he can find her.”
As Hallr spoke, Bjorn stood up. Not the Bjorn that lay on the rocks. Out of that Bjorn, a new Bjorn rose. He was still small and furry and black and white. Anywhere else he would have been invisible to her, but here, so close to the Forever Shore, he was only faintly translucent, like linen in the sun.
He stepped one paw and then another out of his body. When he stood free, he shook himself. Love-lines ran from him to her and to the Forever Shore.
“My paw doesn’t hurt!” Wriggling with excitement, he pushed his nose into her arm.
It felt like any dog nose, only dry. Hesitantly she wrapped her arms around him, feeling the coarse curls of his fur. He felt like any other dog, except he had no smell she could smell, and that made her sad.
“You weren’t supposed to die,” she said into his fur. “Not now.”
“But I got the knife.” He licked her cheek. “Let’s find Astrid and your husband.” Pulling away, he stepped to the edge of the rock column. With a doggie grin, he walked over the edge.
She shrieked, but he landed lightly on the path below.
Too many shocks, she thought. She looked back at the body of the Bjorn she had known. Like all bodies, it looked smaller, as if the part of Bjorn that paced the path had been excised. She picked up a few pebbles, piled them by his head—for remembrance, for a life lived too short—then stepped onto Hallr’s proffered palm. He set her on the trail.
They followed the path. Waves crashed in the distance. She prayed to any god who would listen that both Astrid and Ketill were close, that Bjorn’s sacrifice would bear fruit.
They rounded the bend in the path, and the Shore opened before them: black sand as far as she could see, waves lapping the beach, black rock columns jutting from the water beyond. Souls dotted the beach by themselves or in groups of two, some sitting on the sand, others walking by the water. Love-lines turned the air into a patchwork of rainbows.
“So, um, about you being here.” Hallr did not meet her eye. “I—”
“Hallr, what is that living woman doing here?”
The voice split the air like river ice cracking. A person strode up the beach, cloak flapping, shoulder-length hair blowing in a wind Gudrun couldn’t feel. Souls trailed behind like ducklings following their mother.
“Please,” one soul said, tugging the person’s cloak, “tell me where my son is.”
“And my fiancée!” another soul said. “Where is she?”
“Sweetie, look,” Hallr said as the person approached. Ignoring the clustering souls, he held out his knife. “These two got my knife back.”
“You shouldn’t have lost it in the first place, darling.” The person spoke harshly, but Hallr only beamed at the knife. “And it doesn’t explain why she is here.”
“I, ah, told them I’d let them stay if they did.”
“The dog can stay, not her.”
“Please,” Gudrun said, her voice cracking. She had never expected to speak to Death. “I need to be with my husband. The community thinks I caused his death. I’m exiled. I have nowhere else to go.”
“You may look for him when you are dead.” Death swept out a skeletal hand to indicate the clustering souls. “Otherwise, you go.”
“I need to be with him now.”
“Then you die.”
“If I’m dead, I won’t be able to find him.”
Death tsked. “My shores are vast. Being dead or alive makes no difference in your ability to find someone. Even I don’t know where everyone is.” This was reinforced with a glower at the souls.
“But I can find him easily. I see the love we share. I can follow our love-lines straight to him.”
A few souls gasped. Death arced a thick brow. “Do not fib to me.”
“If I prove it, will you let me stay?”
“Only if you are dead.”
Gudrun clenched her fists. There had to be another way. “How is he here?” She pointed to Hallr, who was still beaming at his knife. “He’s not dead.”
“He works for me.”
“I could work for you. I could reunite souls with those they love.”
Death harrumphed, but the loitering souls exclaimed happily, and Hallr set a hand on Death’s arm. “Let her try. You’re always complaining you can’t get anything done with all these souls pestering you.”
“All right.” Death folded thin arms in a dare. “Show me.”
Yes! Gudrun spun to the left, where both her and Bjorn’s love-lines led. “Come on, Bjorn. Astrid’s this way, too.”
Bjorn barked, his ears up, and bounded down the beach.
If only she could run that fast, race down the sand to Ketill. Instead she set a brisk pace, walking as quickly as she dared. Hallr followed, yammering on about the people they passed, while Death walked silent at his side, the lonely souls trailing behind. Wave after wave crashed on their right, and Gudrun was remembering how tired she was when one of the love-lines veered off to the left, up a small hill with evergreens bordering the shore.
“Bjorn! Astrid’s up there.”
Barking madly, Bjorn tore up the hill. A moment later, a horse whinnied from the trees. The two met nose to nose at the crest of the hill, Bjorn bestowing slobbering kisses on his friend.
Gudrun pressed her hands to her chest, overjoyed. Then she saw her own love-line angling off the beach up ahead. She ran.
She rounded the next curve of the beach, and there he was, sitting on an outcropping of rock, watching the herd of horses to which Astrid now belonged, green friendship lines running from him to the herd.
Her mouth was dry. Her throat squeezed tight. She called, “Ketill!”
He tensed. He turned around. His body went still in shock, then he was sprinting down the hill to her.
“Gudrun, what are you doing here?”
She wrapped her arms around him. This was his hug, the scratch of his beard on her neck, the curve of his back under her hands. He no longer smelled like himself, either. She missed that, but still it was him.
“I followed the love-lines.”
“And I’m glad you did, but why are you here? You’re not dead.” He pulled back to frown down at her in concern.
As usual, she couldn’t hide her worries from him. “Everyone thinks I magicked your horse, that I murdered you. They exiled me.”
His face darkened. “The idiots. Of course you didn’t murder me. It was an accident. I just wish I knew why Tanni kicked me.”
That she could help with. This she had been born to do. A shiver of excitement coursed through her as she beckoned Ketill up the hill he’d just come down, following the vivid green friendship lines she recognized. At the top she shaded her eyes, tracing the line into the distance, to where a brown horse stood by itself, half hidden by trees, away from the rest of the herd. As if it were ashamed. Or in mourning.
She put two fingers in her mouth and whistled just as Ketill had shown her.
The horse’s head came up. Well trained, it trotted up the hill.
“Tanni?” Ketill whispered, aghast, as the stallion approached, head low.
“They killed him,” she said, “for what he did. I’m sorry.”
Ketill’s face was haggard. He held out his palm. Tanni shied away, then his ears came up and he lipped Ketill’s palm.
“I’m sorry,” Tanni murmured. Ketill had been on the Shore long enough he didn’t flinch at a talking horse. “I felt a small earthquake—”
“I didn’t feel one,” Ketill protested.
“You humans often don’t.” Tanni switched his tail. “This one scared me. I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“It’s okay,” Ketill said, wrapping his arms around Tanni’s neck. He offered Gudrun his hand across Tanni’s withers. “I’m sorry for what they’ve put you through.”
She took his hand. “Me, too.”
Death had climbed the hill behind them, followed by Hallr and the souls. Love-lines swarmed the air around them, an enticing array.
“Impressive,” Death said, grudgingly.
“Thank you.” She squeezed Ketill’s hand and faced Death. “So I may stay?”
“If you truly wish it.”
“Please!” one soul said, scrambling out from behind Death. “Find my son!”
“No, my betrothed!” another called.
“Better hurry,” Hallr said. “More souls are coming down the corridor. They’ll have folks for you to find, too.”
She took a deep breath. Only now did she realize how big a job she was taking on—the souls newly arriving would leave little time to reunite the souls already clamoring around Death. She could work every moment of every day and still have an endless supply of souls to match. And when would she find time for Ketill?
“We’ll come with you,” he said, rubbing Tanni’s nose. “Won’t we?” Tanni whinnied.
She let out her breath. It would be a big job, but it was good work, which needed to be done.
“Okay,” she said to the soul closest to Death. “Whom are you looking for?”