When the heavens go dark, hearts still glow for a mortal woman and a god in an exhilarating fantasy by Charlie N. Holmberg, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Star Mother.
In a heavenly war, the moon is prevailing...
It happens in an instant, filling Aija with dread: the Sun is suddenly cast from the sky, throwing the Earth into midday darkness. On the fourth day of endless night, Aija finds an unconscious man by the river. His skin is as hot as her lantern's glass and just as golden. To Aija, a farmhand with the soul of an artist, this beautiful stranger is an inspiration—and a mystery. He calls himself Saiyon. He bleeds light. His friends are celestial. His enemies, godlings of the moon.
Between Aija and Saiyon, attraction grows warmer. For Aija, an unfathomable revelation: she's falling in love with the earthbound Sun God. When Saiyon's faltering powers are restored to full glory, what then? There's a way Aija can become immortal, too. Saiyon can't allow such a risk.
Aija has no choice but to follow her heart to places darker and more dangerous than she realizes. Whatever sacrifices lie ahead, they're the only way to make an impossible true love last forever.
Release date: March 8, 2022
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Charlie N Holmberg
I’m not happy with the statue.
None of the others agree with me. The stone is meant to show only an approximation of the god, not His actual face, as none of us have ever beheld it, and the priest claims His radiance would burn our eyes from our skulls if we did. But it feels wrong to create something like this without a face. I can’t help but think the piece will forever feel unfinished.
Daylight winked out at a quarter past noon.
Cloudless thunder ripped across the sky, as though I stood in the middle of a collapsing building. It rattled in my ears and zipped across my skin, raising gooseflesh in its wake. The animals in the barn erupted into a frenzy, bucking and bleating and crying out sounds I’d never heard in all my thirty-four years. Vine’s hoof whipped by my jaw, close enough that I could feel the air compress around it. The cacophony was almost as violent as the thunder itself.
And then everything went dark, as if the world were lit by one candle, and it had been snuffed. No gradual setting of the Sun, no closing of lids. Only darkness.
If the utter black that consumed the barn and the farm outside of it weren’t terrifying enough, the animals hushed just as swiftly, so silent I would not have known they were there if I couldn’t smell them.
I had dropped the shoeing nails balanced on my lap but didn’t stoop to pick them up. I was lucky Vine’s half-shod back hoof had missed me in the commotion. I backed away, stepping on my skirt, fingers grazing across packed soil and scattered bits of hay. For a minute, the shifting of my body was the only sound in the barn. My crawling and my breathing, which grew heavier the longer the darkness held.
By the gods, what has happened? I found my feet and felt my way to the door. I’d been on my grandmother’s farm long enough to know my way about, but my limbs trembled with every step regardless of my attempts to soothe them. The barn door groaned as I pushed it open.
Soft, weak light poured over the fields of corn, hay, and oats. Relief stirred in my chest at the sight of the stars, and I realized that in a wash of fear, I’d expected the sky to be as dark as the barn ceiling. So many stars pocked the night sky, more here than in the city. But that relief was quickly squashed when I recalled the time.
A quarter past noon.
Stepping away from the barn, I scanned the sky. No Sun, no moon. Only stars and a smattering of distant clouds.
Even scripture had never depicted such a thing. No matter how long I stared, I couldn’t wrap my thoughts around it.
“Ai?” My mother’s voice called from the house. “Ai!”
“Here!” I called back, hugging my arms around myself, needing something sturdy, as I hurried toward her. I took care with my step; the last thing I needed right now was a twisted ankle. “I’m fine! Kata?”
“She’s fine!” My mother, Enera, bustled out from the house, her light linen clothes making her easier to find in the dark. The shuffling of her skirt and legs seemed so loud in the night—which gave me pause. Turning, I strained for other sounds. No crickets, no birds. My mother, my grandmother, and I lived a good way from the closest village, and far from the capital. I was used to the quiet.
Yet there was something distinctly wrong with this quiet. Something that shivered in my bones and made my fingertips itch, almost like when I had an excellent idea for a painting but couldn’t get away from my chores to execute it. Except instead of frustrated anticipation, dread curled in my middle like a tired cat.
My mother closed the gap between us and grabbed my shoulders. “Did you see?”
I shook my head. “I was shoeing Vine—”
The grip tightened. “Are you hurt?”
Trying to smile, I put my hands over hers. My mother was a worrier, even when the cosmos behaved itself. “Missed me by a hair.”
My mother released me. She was shaking badly, and I picked up her hand to offer comfort. “They heard it clear to Helchanar, I’m sure.” She swallowed. “The gods are angry with us.”
“The gods are angry with each other,” I whispered, glancing at the sky. There had been rumblings of late, stories from far away about strange storms and flashes of light—evidence of another war in the heavens. It was hard to know what was speculation and what wasn’t. It had been hard to pay it much heed, when our own country was in the midst of a human war.
Both had seemed very far away, until now.
“Let’s go inside.” I spoke a little too loudly, but I needed to ensure my voice didn’t quiver or shake. My pulse beat wildly beneath my skin, moisture had fled my mouth, but I needed to be my mother’s security. I needed to be the stake that held down the tent against the wind. Enera’s soft heart could bear only so much.
My mother nodded, and we walked back to the house, my gaze continually darting from one end of the sky to the other. Every time I blinked, I expected the day to return. Expected to wake up on the barn floor and discover it all had been a dream. Surely only that could explain the sudden onset of night.
Yet my ears still hurt from that terrible cracking sound, like the sky itself were made of thick, shattered glass.
My skin grew cold.
Candles were already set up in a circle on the kitchen table, half a loaf of bread and my grandmother’s wedding ring at its farthest point. Kata knelt on one of the benches, hands clasped together in prayer. Her hair was entirely gray, and if she lasted another decade, it would surely bleach white. She had a small frame, smaller than mine or my mother’s, and she lost a little more weight with every year she defied the grave. As though her skin and her skeleton were lovers and sought to unite, pushing everything else away. The thinness emphasized her nose and her knuckles, which seemed all the more severe in the dim light. In truth, my grandmother’s slowly weakening body was the only thing that made me feel useful on a farm that had run just fine without me during my time in the capital.
I gestured my mother to the nearest seat before saying, “The pleadings of one woman won’t bring back the light.”
Kata opened one dark eyelid. “Neither will blasphemy.”
I let out a long breath. Rubbed my hands together. The cold was seeping into muscle. “It will pass. Tomorrow morning, the Sun will rise and this will pass.”
My grandmother raised her head. “And can you explain it?”
I shook my head. “It won’t matter, if it passes. The ways of the gods aren’t for mortals to understand.” I started repeating that over and over in my mind, hoping to wring some sort of comfort from it.
Kata frowned, then dipped her head again.
Enera leapt from her chair. “We’ll need firewood. I’ll get firewood.” She scrambled back the way we had come.
I held my stomach, taking deep breaths to keep myself calm. My mother was prone to panic, and my grandmother prone to sharpness. My role was to be the balance between them. “It will pass.”
It did not.
The next morning—what I determined to be the next morning by frequently checking my grandfather’s old pocket clock—was just as dark as the long night. I stood at the kitchen window after offering pleading prayers, watching the stars. My mother had been right—despite it being late summer, we needed firewood. It had grown cold. Not cold enough for ice, but cold enough that the small hearth blazed, and I feared the temperature might drop further. Feared for the crops, and for us. I had brought a decent sum with me when I fled Algeron, but the savings were nearly spent. The crops were crucial for our survival, and we had but a few precious candles for light.
I pressed my hand to the glass.
“The moon.” Kata hobbled in, stiff from sleep.
Ducking to better see the sky, I searched for the moon, but it was behind the house. Slipping outside, I walked toward the hayfield, then turned around.
My lips parted in surprise. The moon—I’d never seen it so large. It hung in the sky like a vibrant pearl, if the world had shrunk to the size of an oyster. From my vantage point, it was so large I had to lift both hands to cover it, surely as large as the Sun and His rays together. It glowed white, brighter than an opal, and the light highlighted the many scars across it. Across her. Still, she wasn’t nearly bright enough to make up for His loss. While the Sun’s light illuminated all of the Earth Mother, the moon’s beamed a soft silver that burnished the sky and merely softened the shadows of the world beneath it, gleaming against puddles, metal, and pale stones, never truly penetrating the darkness of the night that cradled it.
Surely the gods’ war had come to Rozhan, for the moon to be so brilliant. I had always thought the moonlight lovely, its light pure and unassuming, highlighting the world in a way that changed it entirely—something any artist would appreciate. But never had I beheld such intense majesty from the demigoddess. I could never hope to copy such a spectacle on canvas, or any other medium. Perhaps a mosaic of obsidian and diamonds would come close.
My hands trembled when I came inside, but I picked up my sketchbook and took it to the closest candle, choosing a stick of charcoal to begin. The off-white of the paper would have to suffice.
I began sketching the silhouette of the horizon. I’d drawn it so many times I didn’t need to see it with my eyes. Memory was enough.
My grandmother clucked her tongue. “What good is drawing going to do?”
She had never understood anything that didn’t put food on the table or hay in the barn, so I ignored her. I shaded in the horizon, pressing hard to make it dark, then drew a near-perfect circle in the sky, filling in the page around it. Added scars with flicks of my wrist.
Drawing helped me think. Painting helped me think. Sculpting helped me think. And I direly needed to think.
“Perhaps the Earth Mother has moved,” I whispered, filling in shadows.
“The Earth Mother sleeps,” Kata argued.
“Have you never moved in your sleep?” My hand stilled. There was only so much of the scene’s majesty I could depict with a dark setting and a nub of charcoal. I set the stick down. One of the first lessons I’d learned as a budding artist in Algeron was knowing when to stop. Yet I did not want to. It felt strange, that such a simple picture represented such a complex problem.
“Where’s Enera?” I asked after my mother. My grandmother preferred the use of her first name, and as I aged, I’d adapted it to my mother as well.
Kata hobbled to the table and sat, but didn’t light the candles of her makeshift shrine. She was devout, but she was smart, and it would do us no good to waste our sources of light. “Feeding the animals. They still eat, you know.”
I pressed my lips together. “I should help her.” With the daylight stolen away, I might actually be useful to this place. A selfish and petulant thought, but I had it all the same.
“Perhaps the gods compromised,” Kata speculated.
I swallowed. “Perhaps the Sun is dead.”
“The Sun can’t die. Gods can’t die.”
“Perhaps they can if killed by another god,” I whispered, stomach tightening. But the moon was only a demigoddess—still immortal, still powerful, but not as great as the Sun and Earth Mother. That was why her presence was so much less than Theirs, even now.
After grabbing my apron and tying it on, I stepped into the dark, not bothering with a lantern. The moon was brilliant enough that I could see my way, though the fields loomed like black iron bits standing on end and shadows along the path stretched thick as tar. I offered another weak prayer in my mind before reaching the barn, the doors and windows open for more light.
Animals of the day remained quiet; I’d not heard the call of a songbird or buzz of a bee since the sky darkened, but the skittering of mice had increased, as had the rhythm of crickets and calls of owls. The sheep didn’t bleat, but they fidgeted, restless. Should I take them to the fields? But how could I keep an eye on all of them, without daylight? Were the wolves prowling, or had they curled up in confusion, waiting for the endless night to pass?
My mother worked, forking hay into stalls; I heard it more than saw it. Enera was a shadow against shadows, a slip of moonlight from the doorway touching her shoes and nothing more. I didn’t ask the question about the sheep. My mother was working against fear. I wouldn’t interrupt that.
We would wait. The sheep were safe in the barn, for now. We would wait, and the dark would pass. In all the stories, the heavens’ battles never lasted long. It would pass.
I had never been so diligent in winding my grandfather’s clock as I was during that time of darkness. After the end of the second day, I kept it on my person, winding it when my hands were empty, winding it when I couldn’t sleep, winding it when my mother wept into a blanket so Kata wouldn’t hear her.
On the eve of the fourth night, I held the pocket clock tightly in my left hand as I ate with my right; bread and beans and rabbit roasted over the constant glow of the hearth. My palms were blistered from splitting firewood, but we needed as much as we could get, even if the walk to the trees was a long one. Even if I could barely see the log in front of me. There was so much work to be done. There had always been so much work to be done, especially without a man to help, yet as the rest of the world slowed down in the shadows, it seemed there was more.
“I wonder how Danika’s brood is faring,” Enera whispered between bites of bread. No butter—that was a task I could finish. Churning the butter. If I could even find where we’d left the churn.
“I know the road. I could find my way to the village,” I offered.
“She’ll be fine,” Kata snapped. The darkness had begun to make her ornery, like the rain did. “She’s looked after.”
Danika was my aunt—my mother’s sister. She lived in Goatheir, the nearest village, which was half a day’s walk away. Unlike my mother, she had married. Most of her eight children had stayed nearby, including Zyzi, my cousin and best friend, who was six years my junior.
“Zyzi will handle it well.” I spoke quietly. I didn’t have to, but something about the perpetual night demanded quiet.
Kata drained her small cup and said, “We need water.”
I ran my thumb over the face of the clock. “I’ll collect some tonight.”
My mother shook her head. “Not in the dark. Wait until—” Then she caught herself. Wait until morning. But what if the morning didn’t come?
What if it never came again?
“I’ll go with you,” she amended.
“We need more firewood,” Kata protested, plunging her fork into a piece of meat. “All our extra time will be spent chopping firewood. Not moping. Not sleeping. Not drawing.” She eyed me as she muttered that last one.
I didn’t respond. It did no good to rile my grandmother, who had never gotten me under her thumb as she had my mother. Probably because I’d been swept away by a man and spent the better half of my life away from the farm. Working there as an artisan—an acclaimed artisan. I may never have left if mining disputes hadn’t driven Belat’s armies over Rozhan’s borders, and thus driven me to the safety of home.
The conflict had raged for years, and from what little news reached us here, in the sparsely populated plains, there was no resolution in sight. Until the battles ended and people had money in their pockets again, my work would never sell, no matter how acclaimed it might have been.
But I couldn’t simply stop creating, even in the countryside. Even when the Sun didn’t rise. My grandmother might as well have asked me to stop breathing.
Kata was simply angry that, at seventy-three years of age, she couldn’t do what she had once done. Her body was too frail. She had to rely on her daughter and granddaughter, and Kata hated relying on anyone.
I understood that, more than most. It was easier to depend on yourself. I’d never fully given myself to anyone, even Edkar. Never understood how so many could. I had never . . . felt that depth of romantic attachment toward another person, though there was something that called to me in the songs and works of art depicting effortless and endless love. Like a riddle I couldn’t answer.
Then again, it might have been safer not to.
“Bandits are probably holing up, as we are.” I offered my mother a smile. “It’s not far to the river. And I’m a fast runner, just in case.”
My mother wasn’t happy about it, but it needed to be done. That, and Kata had asked her to get the firewood. In the five years since I’d returned to the farm, I’d never once seen her act against my grandmother’s will.
We finished dinner in that same stifled quiet—a quiet that would surely drive me to insanity if it lasted much longer. I collected the dishes and set them next to the washbasin for Kata; dishes were a task she could still do, and she got livid if anyone took that away from her. Then I slipped into my room. The farmhouse had two bedrooms, and my mother had kindly given me hers when I returned from Algeron. She’d moved in with my grandmother, and the two slept in the bed Kata had once shared with my grandfather. I shook my hair out from the tail I’d put it in this morning and recoiled it. My mother and I both had thick black manes we wore long, simply because long hair was easier to pull back, and the coarseness of the strands complied better. The rest of me might as well have come straight from my grandmother—I had her taupe eyes and darker complexion. I’d been told I had my father’s lips, but I’d never met him. Even my mother barely remembered him. He was a useful mistake, and little else.
I pulled on my coat, the weight of it still strange, as days ago it had been summer. I didn’t bother with gloves, but I took a lantern outside with me, along with two empty pails and a yoke. The river ran past the oat and hayfields. It would have been easier to take Vine; she could carry far more than I could. But if our only horse—who still was not fully shod—broke a leg in this darkness or startled and ran off, we would feel the loss sorely. Better for me to do it alone, until the Sun returned.
The moon hovered near the distant mountains in the west, a range so minute it was barely discernable from the plains. Half her face was covered by a cloud, which appeared entirely silver from her increased light. I watched that light for a moment before blinking and turning my gaze toward the well-worn path to the river. It was smooth and sure, but I’d best pay attention, regardless. That, and I would hurt my night vision if I stared too long at the unnatural brightness of the moon.
I passed the fields, which had taken on a heavy and strange presence in the endless night, pocked with the slow song of crickets. Together, they made the night more dreamlike.
At least the river didn’t hush beneath the oddity of the heavens. It babbled readily as I approached, lazy with the season, meandering between shallow banks. The reeds along its edges looked tired, and I feared again for our crops. Surely they would die if the Sun did not return soon. The new brilliance of the moon might slow their withering, but it would not be enough to nourish them in the long term. And we needed those crops to sustain us.
“Gods help us,” I murmured as I knelt at the bank, setting down my lantern. I uttered a prayer to any god, demigod, or even godling willing to listen, asking for the day cycles to be restored so we might be spared. I filled the first pail with water and hefted it ashore, then filled the second. As I strung the yoke through the pails’ handles, I begrudged the walk back. I hadn’t been sleeping well. The endless night confused my mind. My skin and mind craved Sunlight. Even before the consuming dark, I’d always craved Sunlight. It was, perhaps, the most pious thing about me.
Another prayer flowed through my thoughts as I reached for my lantern, but I was too hasty, and my foot kicked it, sending the glass lamp sprawling along the bank. Hissing, I darted after it, snatching it before it spilled oil or, worse, toppled into the river. Letting out a breath, I held up the light, checking for damage.
Something gold glinted at the edge of the lantern’s gleam.
I paused, squinting. Held the lantern higher. Curious, I approached quietly, my footsteps swallowed by the sound of the river to my left. The shimmer of gold darkened, expanded—
Into an arm.
Chin dropping, I hurried forward until the full brunt of my light fell upon him. A man, lying on his stomach, one arm curled under him, the other extended as though reaching for something. His feet hung over the bank. His clothes were of strange make, drapey and pale, but my focus remained on his skin, which was such a deep shade of gold it was almost brown. A trick of the light?
Kneeling beside him, I shook his shoulder. “Sir! Sir?”
His skin was feverish. But he was alive.
Setting the lantern down, I shook him harder. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt?” I checked him for injury. I didn’t see any, but he was obviously ill. His skin was hot as the lantern’s glass, and he wouldn’t wake.
There was no way I could carry him back myself. He was too big, and I cursed myself for not bringing Vine. “I’ll get help,” I whispered, snatching up my lantern. “Don’t worry—I’ll get help.”
I took off down the river, swerving toward that well-worn path, no longer caring for the safety of my ankles.
I only hoped we could get back to him before it was too late.
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