Olia is woken by the deep unearthly booms and sharp percussive snaps of the ice breaking up. She lies still in her bed, listening.
So soon. She thought she would have more time. Another month, at least. But things aren’t like they were when she first became Tribute Keeper. They’ll be different still for Vali when he’s grown and has taken her place, Gods bless him.
There will be no blessings tonight, though. The ice is breaking up. She has work to do.
The stone floor chills Olia’s bare feet as she climbs from the bed. Her husband catches her wrist before she can slip away.
“Come back safely, my Love,” he whispers, then scoops Vali’s swaddled form into his arms. Olia returns to bed for the briefest moment, holds them both tightly, then dresses and makes ready for what must be done.
In the kitchen, Einar sits at the table, waiting. Outside, the cracking of the ice in the fjord continues.
“When did it start?” she asks.
“Just after moonset. Two hours gone, perhaps.”
Two hours! “You should have gotten me right away.”
Einar shrugs his wide shoulders. He slides his sealskin mittens on as he prepares to leave. “The Sea God will be there, Olia. Just make sure you have what’s needed.”
She touches the small satchel tied at her waist and nods. It won’t be enough, she thinks, but saying that out loud would be giving up and she refuses to give up. Not if there’s even a chance of securing the village another year. Of securing Vali another year. There might still be a way to save them. With grim determination, she pulls on her coat and fastens its buttons, concealing and protecting the satchel and its contents.
“You don’t have to go with me,” she says. It is part of their annual ritual.
Einar holds her gaze, and Olia wonders if he knows. “Of course I’m going. I’m your father.”
There is nothing but starlight to see by as Olia makes her way through the darkened village. Einar’s bootsteps crunch along the snow packed lane behind her. The night air is cold and clear, without a breath of wind to mute the ice as it moans, chitters, pops. It sounds as if the world itself is breaking. When she was little and still new to this task, Olia once thought she heard the ice laughing. When she told Einar, he’d merely nodded.
At the frozen shore, she harnesses herself to the boat they will haul across the ice to the open water. With each echoing boom and shriek, the ice shudders.
Sooner than she expects, they reach the waterline and unhitch themselves. Einar sets the oars into the oarlocks as Olia hangs a lantern over the side of the boat and settles into the narrow shelter of the prow. Surrounded by the sounds of waves slapping at the hull and winter coming to an end, they slip out into the open waters of the fjord.
“We’re here,” Einar says. He startles Olia from dark thoughts of violent storms and wrathful Gods and bodies floating amongst the wreckage of a village devoured by the sea.
She flexes her fingers against the cold as she retrieves the satchel. It won’t be enough. The Mountain God was good to them this year. No one went hungry, no one took ill. There were marriages, and births.
She surveys what she’s collected. Soil from the mountainside, to ease the Sea God’s hunger for the land. Tears of joy, for the Sea God to taste and know the goodness of the village. But there’s supposed to be more.
The water stirs beneath them. The lantern swings. Olia looks over the side of the boat. The Sea God’s unblinking eye stares up at them, the starry heavens caught in the blackness of its gaze. Her father is beside her, as he has been every year since she was chosen for this task. She looks down into the dark waters of the newly opened sea.
“We ask for another year,” she says.
The Sea God twists, rolling its oily body over in the waves. A yawning mouth opens, filled with teeth that spiral down and down into nothingness.
Olia feeds the Sea God the soil she has gathered.
Olia gives the Sea God the tears she shed when she first held Vali in her arms.
This is the moment she has been dreading. Einar is watching her, waiting.
“The village had a good season,” she stammers. “I couldn’t find any.”
Her father nods as if confirming what he’s known all along. He turns to the water. “What may we offer instead?”
The ice sings and shivers and breaks apart as they wait.
At last, the Sea God speaks.
Olia closes her eyes for a moment, terrified and relieved. She will not fail her village. “Agreed,” she says.
Einar places a mittened hand on her arm. “Olia,” he says, but there’s no way around this. The tribute must be paid.
She rows the dinghy back to the edge of the ice, keeping her thoughts on the village, her husband, and her son. All of them, safe for another year. Not until she is walking–alone–across the groaning ice do her thoughts return to Einar. She understands now why he always insisted on going with her each year.
Hot tears spring to her eyes. They spill down her cheeks, but she is quick to scoop them up before they can freeze. She collects them in a small flask which she tucks away in the satchel at her waist. Even if the Mountain God is kind to them again next year, Olia will have what is needed. And later, when Vali is chosen to take her place, she will make the journey alongside him, like Einar did for her. Just in case.
By day, Katherine Karch teaches high school science on the north shore of Massachusetts and commits herself to being a positive force in the world. By night, she dreams of darker things and sometimes writes them down. You can find her chatting about stuff like reading, writing, family, and various nerdy things on Instagram (@katherinekarchwrites) and Mastodon (@[email protected]).