Tema looked up at me. “I think that’s the first time she’s ever spoken to me.”
“No,” I said, doubtful. I put the soup on the table by the couch.
“Yes,” Tema said. “Doesn’t her own shadow scare her?”
“Only outside the house,” I said absently. Crossing my arms over my chest, I looked at Tema seriously. “Feeling better?”
She glared at me. Grudgingly, she said, “Yes.”
Ranan ran back into the room with a wide, wooden bowl over her head. If it was larger than the one I had shown her that morning, it was only by the breadth of three fingers. Still, she flashed me a grin.
“Ask Aunt Tema if we can take it,” I told her, slowing her excitement.
Silent, she turned to Tema, and waited for her answer.
Tema looked at me significantly. “What are you going to make?” she asked.
Ranan tongued the inside of her cheek, maybe considering her answer. But she didn’t say anything.
“We’re going to catch a ghost,” I explained.
“Oh,” Tema said. She held my eye until she was sure I saw the humor in Ranan’s new silence, then she smiled at the girl. “You want to take some steak too? A friend brought it around, and I’m not going to cook it before it goes bad. But I had a ghost follow me around for three days once because it found me carrying some home.”
Ranan’s eyes brightened.
“You had a ghost?” I asked. They usually stayed away from the locals.
Tema nodded at me. “Followed me everywhere. It did a lovely job protecting me from my scary, terrifying best friends,” she said dryly. “I’ll get the steak.”
Disappearing into the kitchen, she returned with a paper package longer than her hand. I pocketed it, and a few minutes later, Tema waved us out the door again.
I hesitated in the middle of the street. Ranan stopped beside me, tipping her head back to look up at me with the bowl still on her head.
“Do you want to stop by Momma’s workshop before we go home?” I asked.
Her voice echoed against the wooden rim. “No. I’m too little.”
I blinked at her. “You’ve been there before.”
“I’m too little,” she repeated. It was her answer, and I knew if I pressed her for an explanation, she would turn to me, surprised to find me being so dense. So instead, I picked her up, threw her onto my shoulders and held her knees tightly while she giggled and found her balance.
“Home then, little lady?”
“Please, please,” she said. She tried to readjust the bowl on her head, then dropped it down in front of my nose. Taking it from her, I tucked it under my arm, and started toward home, bouncing so that she laughed and held on tight.
For a long afternoon, I sat on the couch, restitching worn seams while Ranan played with her toys in the middle of the rug. She glanced out the window between walking her dolls through dark forests and into wolf dens. She watched the sun, waiting for it to sink, and the dark to settle in.
I pulled down bread for dinner, and soup, thickened with chicken and root vegetables. Ranan ate it seriously, and watched sunset as if she could glare the light under the horizon. Aisling and Eadan tumbled home while the evening was still rosy red. Ranan’s eyes got wide when she realized it was time to give her apology, not to catch her ghost. Eadan accepted her rushed delivery and stopped smirking when Aisling glared at him.
They sat down to dinner and Ranan faced me expectantly. The sun had all but disappeared.
Aisling swallowed a bite, and looked at me, eyebrows high in question. “Do you want me to take her…?”
“Get some sleep,” I told her, with a steady answering smile. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
Carrying the bowl outside, Ranan and I set it a few feet from the back wall, empty. Then we raced each other, filling cups with water at the kitchen barrel, and splashing them into the bowl until it was full. Eadan stared at us. Aisling laughed. Ranan promised me she had won, and I ran back one more time to fit the lid back into place. I picked up the package of red meat off the counter and kissed Aisling good night. When I came back, Ranan leaned against the wall of the house, and the water was a wide silver pool inside the dark bowl. Untying the package, I spread it at the edge of the street. It gleamed in the dark as well, slick. Then I sat down beside Ranan. She leaned against my shoulder.
And we waited.
The first ghost arrived after half an hour, nose low to the ground. Claws clicking, it ran toward us. It had short, dark fur so close to shadow that it seemed to move too fast in the dark. Its face was painted with a tawny mask. When it realized we were waiting behind the meat, behind the water, it picked up its head, spun and bolted away, tail swinging.
Ranan looked disappointed. “Coward,” she muttered.
The next one waited another hour to come clattering down the street. It was dark as well, black from nose to toes, and grubby enough not to shine in the starlight. Heavily, it walked down the street, as if it had gotten too old to lift its feet. It sniffed at the meat. It looked at us. It took a drink.
Ranan came up on her toes, ready to tip herself into a forward step. As soon as she did, the ghost looked at her sharply. Ranan froze. It turned and walked away.
I squeezed Ranan’s hand.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “A brave one will come soon.”
She folded her arms over her chest. It was getting colder as the night dragged on.
We only waited a few more minutes for the next ghost. It rounded the street corner, jogging steadily, square shouldered, with a long white scar across its shoulder in red fur. One ear was torn. Its tail had been broken more than once, and I suspected it was shorter than it had once been. But it was stacked muscle over iron bones, and when it looked at us, I knew it was aware of what it had been built from. It growled.
I put a hand on Ranan’s arm to keep her where she was.
The ghost bit into the meat, snapped thick jaws around it, once, twice, three times, and growled at us again. I took a breath in, let it slide back out and didn’t move.
Then it took another sharp step toward us.
I stood, shoved Ranan behind me. “Hey!” I shouted, and convinced it with a glare and sharp step of my own that I was made of iron as well. It barked, a sound that ripped out of its chest and clapped in mine and lunged forward. I caught the side of its face with the hard sole of my boot. It dropped awkwardly back to the ground, rolled, and ran.
Shaking, Ranan wrapped her arms around my thigh. I picked her up, held her head against my shoulder, kissed her hair.
“It’s all right,” I murmured. “It was a coward too. Just a different kind.”
She locked her arms around my neck.
“Let’s go inside,” I said, and started to move back toward the house.
“No,” she said. She fisted her hands in my shirt, as if even without her feet on the ground, she could pull me to a stop. I rocked to a halt.
“I want to catch a ghost,” Ranan told me earnestly.
I wanted to take her inside and tuck her into bed. But very carefully, I put her down and sat against the wall again.
Ranan sat inside my crossed legs, knees pulled up to her chest. Tugging on my sleeves, she wrapped my arms around her until she was tucked away under my chin, warm and walled in. I held her tight. For a moment, she shivered, then breathed in deep, and waited. Waited. Watching the street with bright eyes, leaned into my warmth.
The shadows performed their slow sneak across the street. Ranan stayed away, shifting every once in a while to prove it, and always pulling my hands closer to her.
The street stayed quiet for too long. Something about the silence turned thin and fluid. It was a sheet of fabric hung in the dark, something that might be pushed aside at any moment, a curtain hiding what was coming next. The feeling crawled up my spine, and I wanted to shudder, as if I could shake it off. I wondered if Ranan could feel it too, but it might have been only gravity and exhaustion that pressed her tighter to my chest.
Then the ghost appeared around the corner, a white smear in the dark. It had pointed ears and a tail like a tattered flag, long fur knotted together with grit. It lifted its nose for a short count, glanced backward, and then padded toward us. It didn’t make a sound or an echo, until it was so close we could hear it breathing. Then its claws clicked delicately on the old paving stones.
It nosed at the paper, still stained with the shadow of the meat. And it glanced at us.
Then it lapped up sweet, glittering water from the bowl.
Ranan pulled my head down so she could whisper – too loud – in my ear. “Is this one brave?”
I took a breath. The ghost raised its head, looking at me with dark eyes, and calmly took another drink. I looked for scars. I looked for proof of battle on its muzzle or in its claws. I couldn’t see any dark rends in its long hair, or anything but spattered dirt on its legs or face.
“Maybe,” I said.
Ranan pushed my arms away, crouched over her hands, then stopped before she pushed herself to her feet. The ghost was looking at her. Ranan kept her hands braced against the ground. Then she stood slowly. I shifted, just enough that I could roll to my feet after her in an instant.
The ghost stayed where it was. The end of her tail swayed.
Taking a careful step, Ranan held up her hand. The ghost watched her fingers. Then her face. Then her fingers as they drifted closer.
Ranan took a deep breath. “S’all right. You’re pretty. Pretty, pretty ghost.”
The ghost flicked its ears and braced itself onto its rear legs. But it didn’t run away. The ghost let Ranan pet it back, then let Ranan touch the top of its head, and looked back at the little girl as if calculating something in the weight of her touch.
I watched, quietly, until the ghost seemed to shrink farther back, then raised my hand for Ranan. “Why don’t you come back, squidlet.”
Hesitant, Ranan took a step back toward me. The ghost relaxed, and Ranan’s eyebrows scrunched together. She stepped back into my hand and I collected her into my lap.
“Give it a moment,” I whispered to her.
The ghost took another drink.
Ranan looked at me, begging for me to let her go again so she could coax the ghost to love her. I smiled and shook my head.
Then the ghost took three steps past the water bowl, looking at everything except for us. It spun a little circle, investigating the stones beneath its feet for invisible dangers. Then it lay down with its tail under its chin, head inches from my leg.
I stared. Ranan’s mouth opened in round wonder. Another moment and it sharpened into a smile while she braced one hand on my thigh to look at the ghost’s sharp, white face.
Carefully, she dragged her fingers over its head, light enough she might have been a little ghost herself, insubstantial for all her weight.
“All right,” she whispered. “If you stay with me, I can grow up.”