by Leena Likitalo
illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013
“How much time do I have?” Princess Irina asked, her breath warm against my chest.

The pines on the rocky beach shivered in the wind. The waves whispered tidings that she couldn’t hear. I held onto her, though the horses tattooed on her skin were already restless. “Less than we deserve.”

She pushed herself up, mounted me, and bent to kiss me. Her lips tasted of honey and wine. The horses tossed their heads, their manes wrapping around her arms like roots curling in thirst.

“Let’s run away,” I said, though I knew what her answer would be.

She rocked astride me as if she hadn’t heard me. As the gravel under us shifted, crunched, I ran my fingers along the scars covering her chest. Her horses shied away from the signs of the rage that had possessed her father, Mad King Slavik. It was almost two years since Irina had poisoned him, but the marks of his knives had yet to fade.

“We could have a week, a month, before they find us…” As the Sage, the spiritual leader of our people, I should have been ready to do whatever was required to protect our people from the wrath of the deceased. I was supposed to love my people above all else, not only one person.

“Stop it, Sage.” Irina leaned away from me, her black hair cascading down her back. The wind grew colder, stronger. “I will not force my brother to hunt me down like some animal no more than I will see my father’s curse haunt my people forever. This must end. This must all end.”

At that moment, I loved her and her unfailing strength more than ever before. She had accepted her fate, the consequences of her deed. She was stronger than I was.

"The Horses Under Her Skin" by Leena Likitalo at Waylines Magazine

I strode deeper into the necropolis, dry grass and pine needles withering under my feet. Prince Ilja had summoned me. Doubtless he wanted to talk about Mad King Slavik's curse.

I could sense the resentment that emanated from the hill tombs of the past kings and queens. They abhorred Slavik for using the curse he’d cast on his deathbed, for causing storms, draught, and famine upon a whim. I’d frequented the sauna to seek counsel from them too many times to count, but before a curse of this magnitude, the ancestors were powerless.

I found Prince Ilja soon enough. He sat astride his black steed and stared at his father’s kurgan. He knew his father's curse would be broken when the person responsible for his death would be sealed with him in the kurgan. There was no defying the spiritual law, no matter how much he wanted to find another solution.

“You summoned me?” I said.

Not even the oldest pines of the necropolis reach as high as Mad King Slavik’s kurgan, but even as I waited for Prince Ilja’s answer, the tomb seemed to grow in size. Slavik had ordered his kurgan’s construction back when he’d first started drinking the blood of captured enemies, before he found human flesh to his liking. After two decades of atrocities, and nineteen cursed months, the slaves still labored to finish the construction, chipping stone, sawing wood.

“Sage,” Prince Ilja finally said, the furs of his cloak wafting in the sea breeze. He cast a darker, taller shadow than he should have. Slavik was summoning yet another storm. “Is there anything you can do for my sister?”

Prince Ilja knew about Irina and me. By not revealing our relationship, he’d given it his silent blessing. I didn’t want Irina to have to die, but she was right. We had to put an end to Slavik’s madness. “The kurgan is ready. Her spirit horses are restless.”

Prince Ilja accepted my words without as much as a tightening of his expression, always matured and tougher than his years. Then he pushed his cloak aside and rolled up his sleeves. “What do you see of my future?”

Bears covered Prince Ilja’s forearms; I knew they spread all across his upper body.

“Well?” Prince Ilja prompted, the bears inanimate, unstirred by his impatience.

The necropolis stilled, waiting for my answer. The spirits of the old kings, the wives and loyal warriors that had decided to accompany them in the after life, listened relentlessly.

“You will soon be the king,” I said.

Prince Ilja shifted in his saddle, the leather creaked. Once his father’s kurgan was sealed, he’d ascend the throne. He owed everything he had to his sister. The guilt gnawed him inside. “Is there really nothing you can do for her?”

After Slavik had died, I had entered the spirit world and tried to persuade him to lift the curse. He’d been furious beyond description, a raving creature from nightmares. Somehow he’d deduced who was behind his poisoning. He wanted revenge.

He wanted my Irina.

I said, “I will visit the spirits tonight.”

"The Horses Under Her Skin" by Leena Likitalo at Waylines Magazine

I entered the sauna to seek counsel from my ancestors. The steam slammed against my face, the hotness stinging my skin. I sat down, but the dome of carved granite felt lower than before.

The skull of the first Sage teetered on top of the pile of bones in the back of the room. He had lived such a long time ago that the millennia had turned his bones to stone. That same fate awaited me. After I died, my apprentices would clean my bones to wait for the transformation.

Rather than to think of death, I tossed more water on the heated bones. Steam sprayed against my naked chest and my spirit companions that wriggled over my skin. My eagle beat his wings, my fox trotted in circles. They were no longer mere tattoos, but coming to life.

I immersed myself in meditation, repeating the names of my ancestors. I named my father, his father, his great-grandfather, traveling down the path that would take me to the very first Sage.

Water formed a sheen around the skull, then evaporated in a blink of an eye. After a threatening hiss, the empty sockets started to glow red-hot and the steam in the sauna grew thick. The spirit of the first Sage drifted to fill the skull, to taste my offering of sweat.

My heart, full of guilt, beat slow and hard. I’d chosen love over the best of my people when I’d let Prince Ilja delay finishing Slavik’s kurgan. Any day now, the ancestors would realize I was biased and deny me their advice.

The skull stirred, its jaws clicking as eerie words slipped out from between the gleaming teeth. The first Sage asked, “What do you want?”

I took a deep breath. “I need to speak to King Slavik.”

Something, a deeper shadow, slithered in the heap of bones. The skull rocked in its place, balancing on its jaw. “It is dangerous.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice. “I will face him nevertheless. I have the sight of my eagle and cunning of my fox. I am strong enough.”

The skull shifted from side to side as if the first Sage was shaking his head, thinking me a fool. “If you lose them in the spirit world, you will lose them forever.”

“If that is the price I have to pay to protect my people, then I will pay it gladly,” I said. “Now, summon the King.”

The skull stared at me, the glow of its eyes brightening. “So be it.”

The bones in the pile trembled violently. The glow dulled and the shadows surrounding me lengthened. The first Sage had left.

Ghastly grunts and jagged whispers filled the sauna. The shadows twisted and squirmed, reached out towards me. My fox and eagle warded them off, but that did little to comfort me. This was just a prelude.

King Slavik appeared from amidst the hot steam, a mountain of a man, muscles like roots of a century-old oak. Two full-grown bears accompanied him, looming a step behind. I’d seen with my own eyes the atrocities he’d committed in life. I feared he’d be capable of even more in death.

“Who dares to disturb my rest?” Slavik asked.

“The Sage of your people,” I said, drawing strength from the eagle perched on my shoulder, the fox growling beside me. Slavik, too, would taste my offering of sweat. “Your kurgan is soon ready.”

“I am pleased,” Slavik said, rubbing his tree trunk-sized arms together. He sniffed the air, the bears echoing his gesticulation. “What is this I smell? What are you hiding?”

I had kept many things a secret from Slavik. His kurgan was more than ready; not a single inch remained unpainted or uncarved. But it wasn’t that deception that Slavik had sensed. He suspected my feelings towards his daughter.

“I ask you to spare Irina,” I said before he could start raving. “Show mercy upon your own kin. Annul your curse.”

“My kin?” Slavik laughed. The sound rumbled in the sauna, rolling against me from all sides like an avalanche. “The same kin that poisoned me?”

“You are not the first king to have met such an end,” I said as defiantly as I could. “It is the way of the kings, to be betrayed and replaced by their offspring.”

“Even so.” Slavik shrugged and the bears shrugged with him. I could sway his opinion now no more than when he’d still been alive. “She poisoned me. If I want her dead, then I shall have her dead.”

I steeled myself, seeking courage from my fox and eagle. I too wouldn’t give up Irina without a fight.

“I will not let you have her. I will not let you torment her for all the after life.”

“Then I will haunt this kingdom forever,” Slavik said. He spread his arms wide and addressed his bears, ”Eat his flesh. Drink his blood.”

The bears advanced towards me, snarling viciously.

My eagle soared towards the beasts and my fox placed itself before me. Despite their presence, I didn’t feel half as strong as I’d portrayed to the first Sage.

"The Horses Under Her Skin" by Leena Likitalo at Waylines Magazine

I woke up in my bed, the chilly air clawing at the countless wounds covering my body. “What happened?”

Irina stirred by my side. She offered me water, lifting a cup to my lips. Swallowing hurt, but her presence eased the pain. I thought of the years of abuse Slavik had put her through, of the night I’d found her on the beach, beaten and left for dead. I’d nursed her back to health. Now the roles had changed.

“You fought my father in the spirit world,” Irina said.

A breeze from the sea found its way into my room, the salt in the air stinging my wounds. I had no recollection of the fight.

“You fled the sauna as a fox,” Prince Ilja said, closing the door behind him.

So that was how I’d survived. I dragged myself into a sitting position, though I almost passed out in pain. Once upright, I could see that welts covered my upper body, bruised purple. Where my eagle had sat perched, deep claw marks ruined my shoulder.

I had to ask, though I knew the answer, “Who won?”

Irina pressed her lips into a thin line, too proud to display fear or weakness, beautiful all the same.

The bears tattooed to Ilja’s forearms grunted as he crossed his arms. “What do you think?”

That was it then. I had lost more than my spirit eagle. I had lost Irina forever.

"The Horses Under Her Skin" by Leena Likitalo at Waylines Magazine

The grey day hung heavy above us as the funeral procession coiled through the necropolis, past the lesser mounds of the past kings, towards the doorway that would be sealed after all the gifts had been left in their assigned chambers. Prince Ilja rode in the front, his shoulders hunched, expression grave. Soon he’d be the king, but that was doubtless the last thing on his mind.

I kept a respectful distance to him as I led Irina’s mare. The villagers lining the road stared at her in awe and admiration. They didn’t know about the curse, but thought Slavik was punishing us for not finishing the kurgan sooner. I felt acutely aware of all the lies I’d told them, the setbacks and delays I’d orchestrated to give Irina—us—more time.

“Even in death, he will have his will obeyed,” Irina said, shaking her head. The seashells she’d braided in her hair rattled as if in warning. She moved a strand aside and her white dress slid to reveal her arm. Her spirit horses reared.

As my apprentices walked behind us, I could only reply, “All things must come to an end.”

Irina bit her lips into a tight line. Her sadness became too much for me to bear. I glanced over my shoulder under pretense of checking the procession.

The fiercest of Prince Ilja’s warriors led sorrel stallions, fast and ferocious steeds appropriate for a king. The hunting dogs that would share the horses’ fate howled as they smelled the upturned soil of the unsealed grave. Behind the dogs and their handlers, rows after rows of warriors carried arrows, shields, spears, and swords. None of the offerings would appease Slavik’s wrathful spirit. Only Irina’s death could break the curse.

“I tried,” I said, hating myself for failing more each moment.

Irina patted her mare’s neck, not daring to reach out and touch me when the villagers could see. If they ever learned the truth… There was no point of thinking about that now. “I know.”

The kurgan loomed before us. Only a few meager feet separated Irina from her fate.

“I shouldn’t be afraid,” Irina said. “This is the way of the old kings. This is the tradition.”

But she was wrong. The old kings had demanded their wives to join them in death, not their daughters. They understood not to bear grudges, even if their deaths had resulted from betrayal and lies rather than old age.

Irina dismounted at the foot of her father’s kurgan and offered the reins of her horse to me. Prince Ilja waited at the root of the path leading to the entrance, ready to escort her sister to death. The villagers gathered in a half circle behind their new king, hesitant, still afraid of Slavik.

“My brother.” Irina kneeled before Prince Ilja in submission. The horses in her arms pawed the air with their hooves. “I will take my place besides our father. I will have his hunger satisfied, his thirst sated.”

Her bravery hurt me and I longed to embrace her, right there, before all eyes. I didn’t. It was better she walked to the kurgan herself than having to be dragged there from my arms.

Prince Ilja touched Irina’s shoulder gently, but stared past her, right at me.

Though we both knew Slavik’s will would have to be done, I found myself saying, “The spirits have spoken to me.”

Irina stood up, her façade of bravery frailer by each moment. Prince Ilja flicked his hand, to signal his warriors to keep their hands off their axes and swords, to listen.

I said, “King Slavik has summoned me to serve him in the after life.”

The crowd gasped, terrified of the thought of losing me. Even as stone-faced as the warrior’s were, their raised brows and low muttering displayed their surprise.

Prince Ilja took a deep breath of relief. “So be it.”

"The Horses Under Her Skin" by Leena Likitalo at Waylines Magazine

The slaves sealed the entrance behind us with rocks and mortar. They sang an ancient hymn, asked the past kings to welcome Slavik to their ranks. I led Irina deeper into the mound, as I didn’t want the slaves to see even a flicker of my fear.

Despite the torches lining the corridor, the way into the heart of the kurgan was dim. The smell of sawed wood and beaten soil grew stronger with each chamber passed. The sacrificial horses snorted, distressed by the confinement. The dogs barked.

We spoke not a word as we left behind the room where mead and smoke waited to intoxicate Slavik’s spirit. We trailed down past the drawn swords and polished shields. The air turned stale before we reached the huge chamber, the heart of the kurgan.

Slavik’s embalmed body lay on the deck of his dragon-necked longship. He clutched a huge claymore with a bear shaped pommel. His braided hair formed an intricate web around his head that his rage-dented crown adorned. His muscular chest was bare, a huge bear tattoo covering each side of his body. Even dead, he looked just as hard a man as he’d been in life.

Irina stared at her father’s body, calm and composed. “How long do we have?”

I glanced at the torches that gave an eerie haze to the chamber. Their flames would die when we ran out of air.

“Does it matter?” I asked.

Irina drew me in, placed her palms on my cheeks, then kissed me, right there next to her father’s body.

We got lost in each other and forgot all else. In the end, there was nothing left for us but the one last dream to share.

"The Horses Under Her Skin" by Leena Likitalo at Waylines Magazine

When I awoke, I wasn't in the kurgan, but under the bluest of skies. Rolling hills spread around me as far as the eye could see. Wind played in the tall grass. I recognized the place.

I had entered the after life.

My relief, however, turned to panic as I realized that I was alone, that I no longer held Irina in my embrace. I struggled up, my heart jolting in dread. If Irina had died first, if Slavik had been waiting for us, if he had taken her…

Pale shapes formed at the edge of my vision, twisting in the air. I turned around, around, still not seeing what they were or where they lurked. I feared they were Slavik's bears.

I curled my hands into fists, bared my teeth. I would fight the bears, though they’d tear me out of existence. I would face their fangs and claws. I would—

“Sage?” Irina’s voice came to me, faint and mellow. The shapes settled to solid forms. They didn’t belong to Slavik’s bears, but two fine steeds. Irina’s spirit horses. A third smaller shape trotted to join them. My fox.

Irina sauntered to me, horses following at her both sides. The lush grass bent in the gentle breeze, under her feet. The cloudless sky above bore no sign of approaching storm. “Do you feel it?”

I took hold of her hand, just to make sure she was real. She was. “Slavik’s curse is gone.”

“He will come for us anytime now,” Irina said, accepting the situation as it was. She reached out to touch the closest spirit horse. “My companions, I’m sorry you’ll have to face his fury.”

But now that the curse was gone, Slavik had lost his link to the lands of the living. He could haunt our people no longer. An idea started to form in my mind.

A hollow grunt tore the sky apart, calling forth clouds and thunder. The sound gnawed its way towards us. Clouds spread to stain the sky, ruin the calm.

“Slavik’s bears,” Irina said. Her horses tossed their heads. My fox started to growl.

“Irina…” I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t thought of the idea before. We didn’t actually need to fight Slavik, at least not today. His bears were malicious, but quite slow in their movement. And the spirit world was vast. Endless.

“How fast are your horses?” I asked.

Irina turned to face me, a smile budding on her lips. “The fastest.”

© 2013 Leena Likitalo

Leena Likitalo is from Finland, the land of thousands of lakes and at least as many untold tales. Leena draws her inspiration from years spent on horseback and at the bottom of chilly pools playing underwater rugby. Additionally, she’s keen on traveling to faraway places and spending all her money on chocolate and coffee. Her fiction has appeared in Weird Tales,, and Abyss&Apex. She earns her living by breaking computer games.