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A Pause in Drowning

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Lalli slept atop his raft, his Haven untouched by the frost. Reynir eyed the small black box beside him, his fingers itching to peek into the contents within them.

*

Out there in the waking world, Jul was approaching. The tank had been strewn with whatever decorations they were able to salvage from old homes and antique shops during their runs. Books were still their primary concern, but their captain had deemed it appropriate to be on the lookout for any holiday decorations, no matter how old they were, so long as the crew could still use them.

None argued. With the snow having fallen heavily on the ground and each day another success towards their goal, it was easy to slip into a festive mood. Prospects of returning back home with a fortune of books and rewarded properly had brought cheer among the crew.

All save for one.

Lalli duly completed his tasks for Captain Sigrun Eide during his shifts, but no sooner had his tasks ended than Reynir would find him suddenly gone out of sight. While the crew were singing some smushed version of a carol in a mix of Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish during dinner, Reynir went hunting for Lalli and finally found him curled up under the bunks, deep asleep.

“This happens every year around this time,” Tuuri commented as she joined Reynir by his side. She studied her cousin for a few moments, her face drawn into a small frown.

Unsure of what to say at first, Reynir merely nodded and took another spoonful of the crunchy soup Mikkel prepared for them.

“Should we save a bowl for him?” Reynir asked.

Tuuri shook her head. “Don’t bother with it. He hates it.”

“Do you know why he—”

“Why he gets like this?” Tuuri said as she twirled her spoon in the depth of her bowl. “No. We…we were never really close growing up. He was always out training with our grandmother, and she never said anything about…this.”

Reynir nodded in response.

It was wrong for him to prod in something so personal, as this was something not even Tuuri was privy to, but the curiosity was clawing at him. The moment Reynir felt fatigue creep in, he excused himself for the night, eager to put his head down just inches from Lalli’s curled form, so distant and cold from where Reynir slept.

When he awoke in his own Haven and not into the middle of a prophetic vision, Reynir breathed a sigh of relief. He was not having any of that tonight. He bolted straight for the black water, giving his sheepdog a quick pat on the head as he ran past it, and ruffling a few of the sheep’s soft wool before scaling the water, his heart racing. The moment he entered Lalli’s Haven, his pace drew quiet and still. Seeking Lalli’s permission had become a lesson painfully learned early on, but tonight Reynir sensed Lalli would not be around to welcome him. And sure enough, Reynir found him no where in the forest as he passed the tall trees until at last he reached the raft Lalli enjoyed sleeping on.

To his relief, Lalli was there.

Lalli was sitting up, hunched over slightly as he peered into a small black box. Grey eyes gave no indication of the feelings inside him, and no disturbance from the water below him was enough to draw a reaction from him. Yet Reynir detected some kind of silent fear, trepidation, from the other mage, as though breaking eye contact from within the box could give to dire consequences. For the entirety of the dream he remained in this position, never once moving.

Reynir awoke when Lalli awoke, pushed out of his Haven like a kick to the chest. If Lalli knew Reynir was in his Haven, he never showed it; but Reynir was certain Lalli would not shy from letting him know how much his presence was unwelcome.

Silently Lalli resumed his scouting duties for the day, but by the moment he returned, back to the bottom of the bunks he went and straight back to sleep without even a moment to eat. Unable to help himself, Reynir feigned feeling exhausted and made for the bunks.

Again, Reynir found Lalli in the same trance, and the rest of the period went similarly. The third night produced the same result: Lalli sitting, never moving, never venturing out from his raft, eyes haunted with unspoken horror that lurked somewhere unseen, all attention in that box.

The mystery gnawed at Reynir during his every waking moment, his heart pounding as he watched Lalli during their dreams, wondering if he should approach, offer his help—How? he asked himself. You barely know one spell.

Reynir waited until he could, by chance, catch Lalli asleep on his raft. Rarely they happened, and when they did, they often signaled that the dream would soon end. If it happened, he knew it would be his cue to act fast. During those moments the box was kept beside Lalli, drawing in Reynir like a moth to a flame.

Gingerly he reached out for the box with one eye on Lalli, his heart leaping to his throat when his fingers caressed the surface of the box. When Lalli did not stir, Reynir tugged the box towards him, slowly so that the box would not scrap against the surface of the raft.

At last the box was now in his possession. Holding his breath, Reynir released the latch and opened the lid.

Inside was: nothing.

As his mind reeled with the meaning of this, a hand shot out and grabbed his wrist, startling him enough to drop the box. Giving a yelp, he turned to face Lalli, whose eyes were wide open and glaring at him as he tightened his grip on Reynir’s wrist.

“You shouldn’t have opened the box,” he hissed angrily. “You shouldn’t even be here. He’s coming!

*

Snow drifted down soft and gentle over his head as young Lalli strolled the bright winter night, unafraid and content. Magic pulsated in the world around him: in the sleeping ground under his feet, the trees around, and in the tiny snowflakes which clung to his hair, his cheeks, the tip of his rosy-cold nose.

A pond loomed ahead, nearly frozen save for a few cracks amidst it. Warmth stemmed from Lalli’s heart as music carried from some unseen source. Recognizing the tune, Lalli sang along softly, finding his feet carry him towards the pond crowned with crystalline trees.

He peered into the glossy black surface, watching his pale reflection for one tranquil moment before a hand shot out and grabbed hold of him.

*

“Who is ‘he’?” Reynir asked.

Lalli did not bother to answer him, angry as he was. He snatched the box out of Reynir’s hands and peered into it, distraught when he could no longer sense the protective spell within.

“Whatever was inside was gone when I opened it!” Reynir said. “I’m sorry, but it was like that when I looked inside. I got curious. I’ve been seeing you stare into it all the time here. Out there in the waking world you’re never even with us. I got concerned.”

“Stupid…”

“Was it supposed to protect you against someone?”

Lalli cocked one eyebrow. “Lucky guess.”

Reynir clamped both hands over his mouth in horror. “I’m sorry, Lalli! I’ve put you in danger—I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry—I can help you!”

The raft underneath them trembled under the sudden turbulent currant of the waters.

“Out!” Lalli demanded, grabbing Reynir by the collar and pulling him along with him out of the lake and back on land.

He didn’t stop there. If the fiend had found him in his raft, he was done for. They ran deeper in the forest, Reynir following closely though the fool could not know what danger followed them.

Lalli was tempted to fill Reynir in, for his own safety’s sake, when suddenly they passed a lake, smaller than the one Lalli’s raft lay, where a line of crystalline trees crowned around one half like a crescent moon.

The breath froze in Lalli’s throat.

*

His grandmother’s screams came distant, obscured by the water beating against his ears, pressing on him from every angle. Black spots sparked in front of his eyes.

The clawed fingers around his throat gripped tighter and pulled him deeper into the lake before a burst of light came from above.

*

“The rest of your forest doesn’t look like the pond,” Reynir said. “Did you intend it like that, or…?”

“Shut up,” Lalli hissed just as a sweet song filled the air. Against his better judgement, Lalli found himself stepping closer, his eyes drawn to the jet black surface of the pond.

Just as before, he thought in resignation.

Reynir followed, though from the look on his face the song had no effect on him. Lalli nodded slowly, taking comfort in that fact.

“I nearly died more than ten years ago,” he said hastily to Reynir. He was running out of time. There was no denying it, and the least he could do was confess everything to the idiot mage who decided to make this his problem. “I was lured into this very pond by a Näkki, who took me under the pond to drown me, but my grandmother stepped in and called a spell to fight him away. But I was already half-dead, and that left me with a mark. My grandmother was only able to pause my drowning. Näkki will not stop until I am gone. Each year he would return to my dreams to go back to where he left off. To protect me, my grandmother left her spell, the runo, in the box so I can hear it every winter. It would protect me until the season passed and the Näkki left me alone. I was safe, until you came along.”

Reynir frowned “I’m sorry…”

“The Näkki has one other weakness, he—”

Gagging, he lurched forward, seizing his throat. Each cough racked his entire body, sending him doubling over; he would have hit the ground had Reynir not grabbed him in time. Reynir gave a gasp as a stream of water poured from Lalli’s mouth.

A distance away, Näkki rose from the pond, continuing his sweet song, his yellow eyes set on Lalli.

*

Reynir’s hand dropped to his side helplessly, watching, heart breaking, as Lalli stood there and drowned before his eyes. Water kept pouring from his mouth with no sign of it stopping.

Reynir’s gaze strayed towards Näkki. He had not even paid Reynir one moment’s attention in all this time. As Lalli’s face was turning blue, he inched towards the shore, yellow eyes glowing all the brighter.

“We have a monster like you back at home,” Reynir said hoarsely. “Nykur. My brothers and sisters told me all the stories about how to fight them off.”

The terror of seeing Lalli dying, the urgency to do something, propelled Reynir forward, placing himself right in the middle of the path between Näkki and Lalli. He dipped one finger into the pond and instantly he felt the rush of magic pulse through his body. Light glowed around him as a rune shone on the glossy water’s surface. Näkki’s eyed the rune, his attention on Lalli finally broken.

Fara í brott, Vatnaskratti!” Reynir’s cry carried, shaking with power as the rune’s magic turned the pond’s water turbulent. Näkki’s eyes widened and a terrible high-pitched scream ripped through the air like the sound of nails and violins strings snapping.

When the water calmed, it was no longer black but clear blue, and the ice melted from the trees. Flowers peaked out as snow melted away off the grass.

Lalli took a great deep breath, spluttering painfully. He made to call for Reynir before fainting.

Reynir ran back to Lalli, breaking his fall for the second time; he cradled Lalli in his arms.

“I…I think I got rid of him,” Reynir said. He gently massaged Lalli’s throat and remained with him until Lalli could speak again. He stuck by Lalli’s side when he finally got up and left the area. Once they had reached the forest’s main road, Reynir turned his head back and saw the pond disappear from view.

“It’s gone!” he said.

“Of course,” Lalli said with a little snort. “Nightmares are not meant to exist in a mage’s dream haven.”

*

Next morning, Reynir broke away from the huddled crowd. They were used to Lalli’s absence, even Tuuri, who expected her cousin to return to normal behavior within a week or two.

But Reynir knew better.

He sat across from Lalli with the hot tea and the many handfuls of cookies he was able to sneak away from Mikkel. The near-drowning had damaged Lalli’s throat even in the waking world, so Reynir had prepared some tea for him, extra sweetened as Lalli liked, which he gladly drank.

“This one’s really good,” Reynir said in a whisper as he pushed one of the set of cookies towards Lalli.

Lalli nodded. He didn’t understand a word Reynir said, but the simple gesture was all that mattered. They ate in silence and listened to the howl of the winter winds outside, blissfully absent of any violin.

*

Lalli slept atop his raft, his Haven untouched by the frost. Gingerly Reynir got to his knees and left a small present beside him without waking him. Once the task was completed, Reynir got back to his feet and made to leave.

Hyvää joulua, my friend,” he said softly over his shoulder and smiling, the words lost in the sweet slumbering atmosphere before he left, taking the long, long journey back to his own Haven.

A year had gone by and a wider sea now divided them, but Lalli would remember him. A peaceful winter he will have this year, and something to remember Reynir by.