Prayer at Dark River

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Dear Lord in Heaven, O Merciful Father.

Always I have turned to You in prayer when frightened and my first instinct tonight was to kneel upon these old flagstones and beseech you for guidance. My other choice would be to commune with Professor Webb as we wait to see if his sorcery has had effect. Should I pray the American sorcerer has succeeded, so that Guðrun is safe, or should I pray that he fails?

If he succeeds, it means that his power is greater than Yours. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

This – this uncertainty is what drives me to madness. Am I so removed from Your grace that I cannot tell the difference between God’s work and the Devil’s? It seems so, since a sorcerer is here on my request.

I have racked my brain, searching for some moment in which I failed, some deed for which I can atone…

A fortnight past, Thorir Magnusson discovered my deacon’s horse in his field.  The beast was shivering and wet, but of Hákon there was no sign.

I began praying the moment Thorir told us that he had found the horse, because I knew that Hákon had ridden to call upon Guðrun across Dark River. The weather had turned unseasonably warm and, from the condition of his horse, it seemed clear that the ice had broken as he’d crossed the river.

But I had faith in You. Please, I begged, let him be well. Please let him be safe. Please let him live. Is that my failing? Did I pray too hard and put his life above Your will?

We found him washed up at a river bend, and any hope ended when I saw the bare bone on the back of his skull. I prayed to You then, asking for strength to accept this tragedy. I did not curse or protest because I believed that every one of Your children has his time on this Earth and that Hákon had gone to a greater glory. I trusted You.

I buried him in Your name and told my parishioners to take comfort in knowing that Hákon was now with You. And then, a week after we put Hákon in the grave, Guðrun appeared in the church at night, ringing the bell and raving that Hákon had brought her across the river.

I thought her mad with grief. For hours, I sat by her bed, reading to her from scripture. She had a fascination with 1 Samuel 2:6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.” Good child that she is, she thought You had brought Hákon back and that she should go to the grave with him.

Should I have let her?

When she fell asleep, her face drawn and the rosy bloom gone from her cheeks, I left her to the healing powers of slumber. The night had not quite swung to Matins when she screamed. Praying for strength, I ran to her room.

Hákon stood within. His skull caught the candlelight and gleamed like ice. He had Guðrun by the hand, dragging her to the window. I called Your name and cried out for him to leave in the name of God.

And he did. Like a modern miracle, he dropped her hand and vanished out the window. The only evidence of his presence was the smell of damp earth and the girl sobbing on the floor. I do not remember my words to her, for I was too much in shock that I had, like Jesus, driven a demon forth.

It has occurred to me that this moment of pride was my downfall.

Please forgive me and, if You will not forgive me, have mercy on that poor girl for her own sake. Whatever has caused You to send Hákon back to haunt her night after endless night, can be no fault of Guðrun’s.

My Lord, I have known this girl since birth. I baptized her and believe, in my heart, that she is as pure as any girl of her age can be. I have begged You for guidance. I have prayed, read scripture, fasted, and attempted exorcisms, but nothing makes this demonic mockery vanish for more than a night.

In my despair, I called Webb, the sorcerer of the highlands, and asked him to try his hand at driving the demon forth. I take this sin solely upon myself. I know that to treat with such a fellow is to damn myself, but I am too weak to continue to watch Guðrun suffer.

I am weak, Lord.

Last night, I rejoiced when Webb, with his dark book, wrestled the demon out of her room and to the grave from which Hákon escaped. Sturdy men waited there with a boulder carved with deep and mystic runes for the purpose. The ghost’s pale hands scrabbled at the side of the earth as they rolled the massive stone over the grave, trapping Hákon within.

But that was not the test, for my triumphs with Your word have also lasted a night. No, the test was whether Hákon would return tonight. Outside these turf walls, the rooster crows and the pale light of dawn touches the window. Hákon has not come.

I am kneeling in prayer and, like a child, cannot believe the truth of my own senses. Hákon has not come. Webb is standing from his chair and looking out the window; the light grows stronger and the night has passed, without a doubt.

But I keep my head bent in this empty conversation, pretending for a moment longer that Your answer will come in some other fashion. The cold sun touches me and the answer is clear. Hákon has not come.


Mary Robinette Kowal is the 2008 recipient of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and Asimov’s. Mary, a professional puppeteer and voice actor, lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and eight manual typewriters. Tor is publishing her debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, in 2010. Visit