On the night she was born, a Beast climbed into the cradle and stole Kara-nai's heart. It was her first memory, one the people of her village said she could not possibly recall: the feeling of a sharp claw drawn across her chest, the slight sucking of the heart as it was plucked from her tiny body and replaced with a smooth-shaped stone that rattled against her ribs.
The alarm rang out, the village rose in search and anger, but the Beast was never found. So they returned to their houses, to the mines where they pulled dusky copper from the hills and the fields where they pulled burnished barley from the earth, and nursed Kara-nai, played with her, talked to her night and day. She stared back at them with blank, cold eyes, but the village paid no mind; they knew how much love was required to raise a child with a stone for a heart.
She learned to toddle, then walk, then speak; she pushed seeds into the earth with her chubby child's hands, but nothing she watered would grow. She carried rocks from the mines and lined the gardens of the village with them, but they turned soot-black and lost their sparkle wherever she placed them. No farmer or miner turned her away: they smiled, and praised her, and gave her spring berries and water. They knew how much love was required to raise a child with a stone for a heart, but Kara-nai could read the shadows around their eyes.
By the time she was fourteen, Kara-nai had tried to cut out her stone heart four times. The space between her growing breasts was puckered and crisscrossed with scars. On the eve of her birth every year, the village shut her up in the healer's hut and took away all the knives. For one long, dark night she would stare blankly at the walls, her mouth bitter with potions to keep the stone warm and life-giving for another season, the scent of fallen and dying leaves in her nose, and she would despair.
On the eve of her eighteenth birthday, Kara-nai came to the door of the healer's hut and asked to speak to the chieftain, her breathing harsh and heavy from the stone's unbearable weight. "I am going to seek the Beast in the wilderness," she told him. "I am going to win my own heart back, by force, by wit, or by sacrifice."
The village provisioned her as best they could with the best of their meager winter stores, with their forefathers' ancient weapons, with words of advice and fervent prayers and a sudden, tentative admiration. She set out as the sun dropped beneath the faraway mountains, outlining their peaks in fire.
It was the farthest she had ever been from home; she thought that should make her sad, or afraid, or even excited, but Kara-nai had a stone for a heart, so she did not look back.
It was a journey like many others; it was her first trip from home. Kara-nai ate winter apples and hunted thin rabbits as best she could, which was not well. Oftentimes, in the cold and dark of onrushing winter, she contemplated ridding herself of the cursed stone in her breast. But the voices in her head whispered soon, soon and she knew it would not be long before she held her own heart again. She stopped at every settlement on the way and asked for rumor of a Beast that had prowled the hills eighteen years past. Everywhere people muttered, shifted, and pointed her west, to the tallest mountain of all, farther away from the sunrise.
There was a small graveyard at the foot of the mountain, and it was there that Kara-nai's stamina, if not her courage, failed her. Under the snow every plot was small, the size of an infant or a child or a long-limbed youth. Each gravestone was unmarked, naught but a smooth-shaped stone. When she had her wind back she reached out to the nearest; the snow melted at her touch. The stone underneath was stained rust-red with dead blood.
Howls reverberated between the mutters of the wind, and her head snapped up; a shadow detached itself from the highest peak. Two pinprick eyes glowed in the distance, and then melded back into the darkness of stone.
Kara-nai set her teeth and set her course towards the spiraling, twisted summit.
At the peak there was a cave, the mouth of which gaped behind a perilously icy ledge and the chasm below it. She pressed forward into the gloom, over the dry dusty ground into the heart of the ancient mountain. She walked for an age or a season, ate when she was hungry, rested, and still dared not a fire lest the Beast find it and slay her in her sleep.
She woke upon the hard ground and the tunnel—which had been black as ash—was now filled with light. Faint, cool light, but it wavered from the inside of the mountain like a beacon. Kara-nai picked up her spear and her knife and her arrows and followed it to a cavern at the centre of the mountain.
The cavern was massive, and light trickled through ice-clogged flues and holes and passages, filtering down until every rock and wall and stalactite was cloaked in blue and shadow. A shape flitted along the edge of her vision, and every muscle in her body tensed. "Show yourself," she called, for this must surely be the Beast she hunted.
"Who comes unto my home?" The voice was a whisper, but it echoed through the chamber, redoubled and hissed louder with every passing second. "Who trespasses upon my keep, and why, and where did you get such foolish bravery?"
Kara-nai raised both voice and courage. "If you are the Beast that steals children's hearts, my name is Kara-nai of the Valley-Past-the-Hills and I have come to slay you. I have come to win back my own heart, taken these eighteen years past and replaced with a smooth-shaped stone."
There was silence for a moment.
"Ah," it said. "Ah. And all my questions answered, for only a child with a stone for a heart would not fear the sight of me."
It stepped closer into the filtered ice-light, and Kara-nai would have gasped if she could. For it was long of body, weather-beaten and thin and feminine, and the face it wore was her own. Her own, but so marked with malice that it could not be a mirror, for she had never felt malice in her life. "I care not for the sight of you," she told it. "I care but for my heart of flesh, and I will have it from you."
The Beast's eyes flickered. "And how shall you have your heart from me, Kara-nai of the Valley-Past-the-Hills? I took it from you once before, and I can defend it with claw and tooth and tail."
"Yes, but I am no longer a child in my cradle. I am grown and I will fight you," Kara-nai said, "to take back my own heart."
"Aha!" it said with a wide-toothed grin. "We both know you cannot take it by force, for I am stronger than you and old as the wind. You will lose and I will rain your bones down from the mountain."
"Then we will riddle," Kara-nai said, "and I will confound you, and win back my own heart."
The Beast laughed even louder. "I have heard every riddle and rhymed every rhyme, for I am wise and cunning and crafty as the stars. I will best you and beat you and spill your dust-blood on the snow."
"Then," Kara-nai said, "we will bargain, and I will buy back my own heart."
This time, the Beast's smile was small and smug and its voice but a whisper. "I have bought and sold greater things than a child's heart, for I am canny and fierce and more miserly than rock. I will take all you have and make a necklace of your shell."
"There is nothing that you can take," she said, "that will break me hollow after eighteen years with a stone for a heart." And both the Beast and Kara-nai knew she was certain it was true.
"Very well," said the Beast. "This is what I ask. I will give you your child's heart, your heart of flesh, if you return to me next midwinter and the midwinter after that, every year until you are buried in the cold ground."
"Done," Kara-nai said swiftly, and a faint and muted glory welled up in her bones.
The Beast's hand blurred, and one adamantine claw was exposed. It threw open its cloak to reveal small breasts and a scarred chest between them, and sliced itself open without a word.
Inside the Beast were many, many small hearts, and they all beat fast as if in terror, a cacophony of pounding. Its hands probed, pushed some away, finally plucked one tiny heart from the rest. It shuddered in the cold, already growing larger and larger until it filled the hand of the Beast. "Here is your heart," it said, and placed the dripping organ in Kara-nai's hand.
The heart felt soft and warm, the claw of the Beast—and yes, it was indeed the one she remembered!—cold and sharp beneath the dying illusion of soft fingers. The Beast lifted its hand and Kara-nai's face melted off its head, her limbs from its furred ones, from its stumpy, horrid, scaly tail.
The scars still lay on its sexless chest, livid and raised in the half-light.
The abomination stepped forward, and with one quick swipe of its claw, it opened Kara-nai's chest from throat to belly and plucked out the heart of stone.
The pain was searing, worse for the cold; the heat of her steaming insides seeped out into the mountain and was devoured. The Beast took Kara-nai's hand and shoved it into that slick wetness, fingers skittering on her own bones and blood, until the heart of flesh was inside her, reaching out tendrils to organs and muscles and fluids, and the pain took on new dimensions. Screams clawed their way from Kara-nai's throat; she burned, she bled, she choked on them, spat them out, felt them score her lungs and belly. She did not care. She could not stop screaming.
Blood welled out of her opened body, and slowly, too slowly, the wound closed into nothing.
"You have your heart of flesh, your child's heart," said the Beast. The sight of it filled her with terror, with blind panic. "Would you like your heart of stone as well?"
The clawed hand extended towards her, the slick and slippery smooth-shaped stone in its palm, dripping with her lifeblood.
Kara-nai fled into the mountain's depths and did not look back, but this time, it was because she did not dare.
She ran for a day in the mountain, losing her way, blind and frightened. She ran for six more down the mountain's slopes—slower because she both feared the treacherous slopes and gloried in the sunrises that set the peaks to glowing. Her legs burned and her lungs rasped from the thin air she had not even noticed before.
She felt weak and full and utterly complete.
It was only when she passed the graveyard of children with stones for hearts that she felt almost safe. She looked upon their graves and felt both pity and joy. She was safe and whole. She had done it. She would not die from the weight of a frost-rimed stone inside her body and have her clothing given to travelers. Her own heart was warm in her chest; it did not weigh her down. She felt as if she could fly.
Winter was breaking on the night Kara-nai came home to her village nestled in the valley. She greeted every single person there with warm embraces, with kisses, with tears. They crowded around her, all hands and questions and loud concern. What had happened to her weapons? What had happened with the Beast? Had she failed in her quest, to be alive and frozen on their doorsteps once again?
"I have won my heart of flesh back," she gasped, and collapsed cold and blue into their stunned arms.
When she was well again she regaled them with the tale of her quest for her heart, and was feasted and congratulated again and again. She did not tell them of the bargain she had struck with the Beast, for the thought of returning to the cavern of ice-light filled her with a dread that stopped her tongue.
She apprenticed herself to the healer who had mixed her draughts, and married a man who was young and strong and did not care about the old, ridged scars between her breasts. The seeds she pressed into the ground flowered, and the rocks she brought from the mines to line her garden stayed bright and sparkled in the sun. Summer passed in learning and lovemaking, autumn came with a scarlet glory she had never seen before, and with every passing day she dragged her steps. Tomorrow, she said. I'll leave tomorrow for the mountain.
The eve of Kara-nai's birth came and went, and for a while all was quiet. She spent it with her husband, who looked her in the eyes and called her beautiful, and she did not speak a word of her promise. Her belly swelled, her hands grew deft at her craft, and the village moved through time in silence.
Midwinter's eve brought more evils than Kara-nai could have imagined.
Drought hit the village, and then plague. The healer was carried off in the first, and with Kara-nai's own hands still unskilled and young, her husband in the second. As summer dawned with no crops, weak hands, and a brassy heat that burned, Kara-nai's child-to-be turned in her belly and died, causing her to pain and vomit for five days and five nights, on the very edge of death.
Every night she dreamed of claws raking down her chest, and every night she screamed until she longed to cut out the heart of flesh and burn it to ashes. Around every corner she saw the shadow of the Beast, and every day which passed with her promise unfulfilled brought more pain, more death, more retribution.
On the twentieth eve of her birth she set out from the desiccated village with her pack and cloak, her spear and arrows, and the iron-handled knife that had belonged to the healer, and nobody asked where she was going.
The trip to the Beast in its mountain was worse than the nightmares.
Kara-nai froze. She was hungry and hunted and frightened of the dark, frightened of the animals in the hills and the woods. She wept for her husband every morning when she woke alone beside her burnt-out fire and remembered how his corpse had sagged into its grave. She wept for her child and her hollowed-out belly, and she could not force her legs to keep moving.
It was almost midwinter night when she arrived at the graveyard of the children and started to climb the mountain. Every step was labour, every step terror. The image of the Beast haunted her dreams. When she arrived in the chamber of icicle-light, she was a spent shadow of a woman; her eyes were sunken, her ribs jutted out, her hipbones ached to the touch, and every beat of her heart of flesh rattled her body with pain.
"I have been waiting for you," the Beast whispered, and the slither of its scales on the rock filled her mouth with bile.
"I have come, as I promised," she whispered back, for she had no strength for more.
"Ah," it replied, "but a year too late."
"A year I have regretted," she said, and sank to her knees. "Please, Beast. Give me back my stone. I cannot live without it."
It came closer, claws clicking on the rock. Kara-nai did not dare look up at its face. "All this effort, all this time, and you wish your heart of stone back again? Whatever could have caused such a change, Kara-nai from the Valley-Past-the-Hills?"
"Give me back my stone," she entreated as the cavern's floor bit into her flimsy legs. "The winter is cruel, and without it I will perish in the mountains. I am half-dead from walking here; one more step will kill me."
"That is no concern of mine," said the Beast, "for I have no pity inside me, and you lie. Why do you wish your heart of stone?"
She swallowed, thin and thready saliva that parched her throat. "Give me back my stone, as I am unaccustomed to this heart of flesh. It pains me every day and night. I cannot abide it."
The Beast came closer still, until she could almost feel its foul breath stirring her stringy hair. "That almost pleases me," it said, "and perhaps resembles the truth. Why do you truly wish your heart of stone?"
"Give me back my heart of stone," she wailed. "For I cannot bear the sight of you with a heart of flesh!"
"Ah," it said and caressed her cheek. The touch was cold and made Kara-nai shudder. "Nobody told you that hearts of flesh are not strong."
"Give me back my heart of stone and I can rebuild my life; anything is better than this. Anything," she gasped, and tottered to the floor.
"Very well," the Beast said. "What shall I have for it? Perhaps your heart of flesh, and your company twice a year, at summer and winter?"
"Done," she mouthed, and her eyes began to dim.
Kara-nai did not even feel the claw cut into her chest, but when she woke on the mountainside there was a great emptiness inside her, and she knew the deal was done.
Kara-nai stumbled again down the mountain, but this time she did not go home: the colourless images of death and despair were fixed behind her eyelids, even if they brought her naught but a dull ache in her belly. She stayed the half-year in the ruins of the graveyard of children, cool and distant and despairing, and the first time she tried to cut out the heart of stone inside her the skies wept for a day and a night.
The memory of her husband faded. She could still feel the touch of his hands on her skin, but when she called up his smile from the depths of her mind, it no longer made her smile.
It set a horrible fear moving in her bones.
The seasons turned, and they were all the same. Midsummer approached, and with great trepidation Kara-nai climbed the mountain once again. She took no food or water, merely the knife that the healer had given her long ago, and the gravestones of the children rolled and shuddered in despair.
Down, down, and down into the mountain she descended, and Kara-nai felt no fear or doubt. She felt nothing at all as she reached the icicle-light chamber and stood before the Beast, her heart of stone heavy and cold in her chest.
The Beast clacked towards her, and grinned its wicked grin. "On time this midsummer, then. Very good. Perhaps we may yet have an understanding."
"I desire my heart of flesh, Beast. I want it back."
The Beast raised its scabby eyebrow. "And why would that be, Kara-nai of the Valley-Past-the-Hills?"
She did not even try to lie this time. "Because I have lost my love of my husband, and that is all I have of him. My heart of flesh may pain me, but that I cannot lose. Anything is better than this."
"Very well," it said. "I will give you your heart of flesh back, and for it I shall have your heart of stone again, and your company twice yearly, and that of a child you will bring me when you scale the mountain next midwinter."
The yearning rose within her, but she did not say done, for she had a smooth-shaped stone for a heart and could be strong, so strong.
"Have we a deal, Kara-nai of the Valley-Past-the-Hills?" asked the Beast, and it cocked its head cruelly at her.
"No, we do not," she replied, and with the sharp knife in her hand slit the Beast open throat to belly.
It screeched, a horrible animal sound, and she dove, plucking child-hearts from its body one by one and scattering them to the winds. "I know how this ends," she cried. "You will draw me back here every summer and winter on my knees, and make me your Beast. And then you will roam free in the world, leaving me to eat the hearts of children for eternity. You will tear me between a heart of stone and a heart of flesh, and soon enough I will have no heart at all."
The hearts slipped from her fingers, slick with blood, but she paid them no heed. The Beast dealt her a stunning blow, one that doubled her over and made her hiss with pain, but she did not stop peeling away the child-hearts. "Where is your own, Beast? Where do you keep it?"
Kara-nai plunged her hands deep into the Beast's viscous torso, and when they were submerged to the elbow she felt the contours of a massive smooth-shaped stone. The Beast screamed and arched as her fingers wrapped around it.
She pulled it out, dripping with blood, and started to run.
The Beast roared and chased her through the tunnels, but she had a heart of stone and it had no heart at all, and she was faster and stronger and wiser than the Beast now. She led it through the darkness, up and up and around and up, and she did not sleep or eat or pause. Kara-nai arrived on the rocky ledge as morning was breaking through the sky, and held the Beast's heart of stone over the precipice. "Push me," she called, "and it will fall. Deny me and it will fall. Give me my heart of flesh."
The Beast cowered before her, and pulled out the last, the stickiest, the best-hidden heart of all from its gaping torso. "This is your heart of flesh," it panted. "Give me my heart of stone and leave me be."
It set the beating heart down on the ledge and edged away. Cautiously, she edged towards it and picked it up, and knew it was indeed hers.
And so she dropped the stone from the precipice.
It made a mighty crack as it hit the rocks below, and the Beast doubled over in pain. "Liar," it hissed. "Liar to the last!"
Kara-nai's hands were shaking with exhaustion, with hunger, but her grip was solid on the old healer's knife. She slit open her chest, shoved aside the heart of stone, and pressed her heart of flesh back into her body. The wound started to close, agony upon agony, and pressure built in her torso. The heart of flesh and the heart of stone thrummed inside her, reverberating each to their own rhythms, until the vibrations of the two set her ribcage to humming. They pushed against each other until she knew she would burst, until she fell to her knees upon the slippery cliff.
There was a pop somewhere inside her and then the pain eased, and the blood running through her veins began to feel gritty, solid, smooth.
It was the heart of stone that had exploded.
She slumped on the edge of the mountain's highest precipice as her skin hardened, her limbs stiffened, the dust in her body spread to organ and limb and bone, until she was still, exhausted, a woman all of stone.
The sound of her living heartbeat echoed through the mountains, and the pain-maddened Beast sprung.
The Beast clawed and scratched, screeching curses, but the statue Kara-nai was of the firmest granite and could not be dented or split. The smell of her living heart inside was intoxicating to the creature, and it paced and moaned horrible moans that haunted the dreams of the villages of the valleys.
After seven days it died humiliated and furious, bereft of any heart at all, and its body froze at the feet of the statue that had been Kara-nai.
Autumn came and went. Winter blew through the world on white wings, and the mountain was silent.
When spring broke over the mountains, an expedition was mounted from the village where Kara-nai was born. Perhaps they could find her broken body and bury it with all the other children who had died from stolen hearts. Perhaps they could find the Beast itself and avenge themselves upon it, stealer of children and hearts and hope. Others joined their cause; others fell into step beside them. They bore the stone hearts of their loved ones as totems, and waved them as banners of war.
Six days they scaled the mountain, and when they saw the statue with Kara-nai's face, the corpse of the Beast before her, the smell of rotting child-hearts that had made the ledge fertile and good to plant, the villagers were silent. One by one they laid the smooth-stone hearts of their dead children at her feet, on her bent knees, at her curved back, and climbed down the mountain again.
The sound of her living heart saw them safe down the mountain, and the sound of her living heart brought pilgrims from all over the world to surrender the last of their dead, the hearts of stone, and thus strip the stone from their own hearts.
The corpse of the Beast at her feet was buried in the hearts. As the years passed, the pilgrims forgot it was there, or indeed why they traveled to the mountain. They forgot what it meant to leave a stone at the statue.
Kara-nai did not, as her living heart continues to beat in her body of stone.
She has been there a very long time, and she especially loves to see the sunrise.