The girl called White Star crept through the forest, hand-in-hand with the boy called Black Star. She wore a dress of her own making, with deep pockets, and sturdy pants underneath. He wore a coat and pants that were both tattered and too small for him, and his calves trembled in the cool air. They had set out from the village late in the afternoon, and already it was getting dark. The tall trees curled and closed together, like they too were grasping precious things.
“I tried to find you longer pants,” she said, “or at least some bigger boots, but I…”
The word hung in the air, known but not spoken — “forgot.” Black Star squeezed her hand, both for forgiveness and to show she didn’t need to say it.
“I’m just happy you keep coming back,” he said.
She glanced back at him, then they both looked down at their hands. There, as always, were their birthmarks. His a black star, hers a white star. When they held their hands just so, the twin stars sat next to each other, unmistakeable mirrors of each other, reminders from the Gods of their sibling bond.
They continued on. She kept them going at a quick pace, still stepping lightly to soften the crunch of the undergrowth. At every broken twig, every rustling, they would freeze in place and look. They saw a wolf, but the wolf darted away, and they heard nothing else. White Star was almost a woman and Black Star was almost a man. They could fight if they had to, but none of the stories of the Name Taker mentioned fighting. No, that old monster was more like a snake than a wolf. He’d take what he wanted and skitter away before you could stop him.
There was a light up ahead. A torch. White Star and Black Star followed it. They found a man in a bright yellow robe with beaded bracelets up and down his arms. Clearly, he was a man from the city, soft and pampered. If his ridiculous dress wasn’t proof enough, his little pot belly showed how well he ate and how little he needed to move. He spotted them, waved, and turned to walk towards them. They clutched their hands tighter.
“Greetings!” said the stranger. “Nothing to fear here, I’m just a simple scholar. Georis Maro, of — ”
White Star hissed, “Idiot! You don’t go shouting your name in these woods. The Name Taker will take it away.”
“Oh,” Georis said, “Sorry…I’m not familiar with your…low country customs, here. You…you are?”
“Call me White Star,” she said.
“Call me Black Star,” he said.
“And those are not our names,” she added.
“Very well,” said Georis, “pleasure to meet you both. Siblings, I take it?”
White Star nodded.
“Are you traveling alone?” asked Black Star.
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Georis, “I had a bit of a falling out with my assistant, and the stubborn ass ran off and left me here to wander. Say, do you two think you could help me find my way back to the road? I’ll pay you for it.”
The twins turned away and whispered. White Star wanted to leave him. Black Star insisted that the nameless would kill the poor bastard, or the Name Taker would get to him. White Star figured it’d probably be both, though this didn’t change her opinion on what to do. That’s when Black Star released her hand and stared at her. His eyes spoke the question, which was more of a dare, and in a panic she grabbed his hand again and agreed. They would help him.
“Follow us,” she said to Georis, “and don’t speak to anyone else. If one of us asks you for your name, don’t answer. Just run.”
He nodded. Black Star took his torch and snuffed it out, insisting that he let his eyes adjust to the dark. They walked on, with White Star slowing their pace just enough for Georis to stop stomping like a horse. She cursed the city folk under her breath. Always so clumsy and loud. Soon, it was fully night, and the forest was busy with the rustling of tiny foragers and the chirping of insects. In this din, it was slightly safer to speak. Black Star knew their companion was aching for conversation, so he asked him in a hush about his studies.
“Unusual creatures,” said Georis, “I catalog their descriptions, and set out to confirm which ones truly exist and which do not. This Name Taker you mentioned — I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“Then you’re lucky,” said White Star. “The Name Taker is terrible. Been stalking our people for as long as we can remember.”
“Sounds dangerous,” said Georis.
“Yes,” said Black Star, “Gods only know how many names it’s taken. When it’s on the hunt, it puts on one of its stolen names, and it looks and sounds just like that person. Then it tricks people into giving it their names too.”
“Ah,” says Georis, “hence the warning you gave earlier. What happens if it takes your name?”
Black Star started to speak, but White Star froze in front of them. Slowly, she pointed ahead. There, hunched over a small deer carcass, was a figure who appeared to have a horned skull for a head. Only when he looked up into the starlight could they see his true face. He was a man, and the skull was only his helmet, but fresh, glimmering blood on his face and hands told them all they needed to know.
White Star turned to her twin. She pulled a long knife from one of her deep pockets. Black Star put up a hand for her to wait, then pointed up the nearest tree. It was tall and sturdy, with many branches. White Star nodded in agreement, and they climbed up. Georis went last. Halfway up, he slipped and fell hard on his elbow. He yelped in pain, and the horned skull man looked up. He stood and marched toward them, now with a bloody axe in hand. Georis got up and planted his back against the tree, whimpering in terror.
When the man was only a stone’s throw away, axe raised, Black Star leapt from the tree, slashing through the air. He caught the man in the chest, forcing him to stagger backwards. Black Star stood at the ready, staying between him and Georis.
“That’s a warning,” he hissed, “and we’re not alone.”
The horned skull man looked up in the tree. White Star wasn’t there.
“Where…” he growled.
But there was a glint, and then a long knife resting at his neck.
“Leave the axe,” she said. “It’s not worth your life.”
The man growled again.
“Why should I?”
“Because you don’t deserve to die,” said Black Star. “We just want safe passage. Don’t mean you any harm. We’ll even leave the axe where you can find it, near the forest’s edge.”
The man glared at Black Star, who did not budge. He found no fear in the boy’s face. If anything, there was something like pity. He looked away and sighed.
“I’ll go. Take good care of it.”
White Star released the man and he ran off. Black Star picked up the bloody axe and inspected it. White Star watched him do this, breathing heavy, knife raised. When he took a step towards her, she jumped back. He gasped, then dropped the axe, ran over to her, and grabbed her hand. She stifled a scream as he wrestled their hands to her face. Only when her eyes fell on their twin birthmarks did she sigh with relief and hug him.
“How dreadful!” said Georis. “Was that the Name Taker?”
“No,” said Black Star, “one of the nameless.”
“That’s what happens to its victims,” said White Star, her head still buried in her brother’s shoulder.
“When you’re nameless,” said Black Star, “people forget about you, no matter how well they knew you before. You become a stranger to everyone. Your own family won’t even let you back into your home.”
“Some of them become wild beasts, like you just saw,” said White Star. “Others become bandits. Others let themselves be taken as slaves. Whatever it takes to eat and survive.”
Georis nodded with a grim expression, “I wonder…how many nameless have I passed before, back in the city…there are certain people you…overlook, just as a matter of course.”
He shuddered. When White Star nodded for them to get moving, he was all too happy to oblige. When they had walked enough for their nerves to settle, they could once again hear the soothing forest rhythm of chirps and rustling. Georis started to speak again, and even that was pleasant. Maybe it was his city schooling, or maybe it was the thrill of cheating death, but his voice lilted like flute music and filled the air with warmth.
“We don’t give you low country folk enough credit, we really don’t,” he said. “You’ve shown such kindness, such bravery here, escorting me through these strange woods and pulling me out of death’s own fingers.”
Black Star nodded.
“No one should left behind.”
“That’s it,” said Georis, “you have bigger hearts out here. Uncorrupted by the politics and bickering of city life.”
“Monsters outside means loyalty inside,” said White Star. “You learn to pick your people and keep them close.”
“You know,” said Georis, “I know it’s against your custom, but I would be honored to learn your true names, both of you. Not here, of course, where the Name Taker might hear. Perhaps when we’re clear of the forest.”
White Star looked back and smiled.
“Yes,” she said. “We have a custom for that. Keeps us safe. We’ll be at the road soon, and we’ll show you how it works then.”
Soon, they did reach the road. True to his promise, Black Star left the axe stuck in a tree stump. In the clear moonlight, they could see what a delightfully ridiculous party they were. Two village bumpkins, one wearing clothes several years too small for him, and a wandering scholar with a bright yellow robe and a round little belly. They smiled and laughed at themselves. White Star grabbed Georis’s hand with her free hand and nodded for him to do the same with Black Star. They stood together in a little triangle.
“See, Georis,” White Star said, “This is what we do, back in our village, before we share our true names.”
“In the old stories,” added Black Star, “they say the Name Taker has skin as gnarled and dry as old bark. That, and this makes it harder for it to run away.”
“Ah, clever!” said Georis.
Black Star shrugged.
“It’s anyone’s guess if those stories are true, but this is the custom.”
White Star laughed.
“Georis, your hands are soft as little baby hands,” she said. “You city folk, never use your hands for work.”
“Only for turning pages and lifting spoons, I must admit,” said Georis, still with that lilting music in his voice.
“Well,” said White Star, “we already know your name, Georis Maro, so you can take your pick. Me first, or my brother?”
“Oh, let’s see…”
Georis squinted and pursed his lips, looking back and forth between them and humming in a show of deliberation.
“Black Star, you first.”
Black Star nodded to him, then nodded to his twin.
“All right,” he said, clearing his throat. He uttered his next words like a prayer. “Georis Maro, I offer you a gift that only the Gods’ own ears have heard. May they grant us…”
White Star burst out laughing. He looked over at her with a frown, as did Georis.
“Sorry,” she said, “I was just thinking of the Name Taker, and how weak and stupid it is!”
“Of course!” said Georis, “I don’t know if that Name Taker has a name of its own, but if it does, I spit on it!”
“Yes, you should,” she said, “because the Name Taker is so greedy that it’s bound to do itself in. It’s like a fox chasing a rabbit right off a cliff.”
“You’re right, sister,” said Black Star. “It would never notice that a pair of twins might have matching birthmarks on their hands, or how those marks would remind them of their Gods-given bond even when one becomes nameless. See, Georis?”
Black Star held his hand up to Georis’s face, and indeed there was a birthmark of a black star there. Georis felt something cold and hard clasp on his wrist, the one on White Star’s side. He looked down and saw a pair of iron shackles linking his arm to hers. She was staring at him, shaking. Her voice trembled as she spoke.
“And it’s such a fat, stupid, lazy beast that it would even come back to that very same nameless twin and try to steal his name again.”
Georis frowned, then shook his head and chuckled.
“I see the mistake you’ve made here,” he said, “You think I’m the Name Taker. Completely understandable, really. Look, if it will set your minds at ease, forget about the whole thing and send me on my way. You don’t have to tell me your names, just release me from this shackle and I’ll give you your payment.”
“Do you know what I’m curious about, brother?” asked White Star. “I’m curious what the Name Taker will do when I parade it through the village announcing what it is. It probably won’t be able to take any more names, will it? Do you think it will starve to death, or do you think the nameless will come and tear it to pieces first?”
“The stories do say it needs names to live,” said Black Star, “but the stories don’t say if it can bleed.”
Georis’s voice, once musical, became dry and flat and hard.
“Release me, and I can teach you what I know. There is life in names, power in names…enough to best death itself.”
“It’s not death we’re here for,” said White Star.
The figure standing in their triangle was not a portly city scholar in a bright yellow robe. It was a gaunt figure, with skin as gnarled and dry as old bark. Tattered grey rags hung over it, and from under its hood peered eyes as cold and dark as iron flints.
“Then release me,” said the Name Taker, “before I visit it upon you.”
White Star drove her knife into its chest. It wheezed as dust shot out in a sickly puff.
“All you have are words and names,” she said, “I’ve got strong iron and a good arm.”
“Gods know if we can kill you,” said Black Star, “but we have you trapped. If you ever want to walk free again, give us what we want.”
The Name Taker snarled.
“You have no idea how insignificant you are. Named, nameless, you wither and die just as soon as you spawn. I have watched mountains rise up from the earth. I have watched the sea turn solid stone into sand as fine as powder. I have counseled kings and doomed them at my whim. You are too ignorant to know the pleasures of immortality, too small of mind…but that, too, I can change.”
“If you’re so smart, Name Taker,” said Black Star. “Give me back my name and go free.”
The Name Taker’s face shifted. It was hard to pick out any expression in its ruined face, but the twins could’ve sworn it was frowning.
“I told you. I don’t remember your name. Your name does not matter. When I need to put one on, I grab one at random. I could give it back, and your life would still be pointless and brief. Let me change that. Let me teach you both.”
The twins looked to each other. They seemed to speak with their eyes alone. When they turned back to the Name Taker, Black Star sighed and White Star grinned.
“You have caused so much suffering for so many people, Name Taker,” said Black Star. “We don’t want to be like you.”
“And if you can’t remember his name,” said White Star, “then you’ll just have to keep giving them up until you find the right one. Here, I’ll help.”
She threw her head back and let out a high-pitched, ululating call. A bandit call, one that any villager would recognize and only a fool repeat. The forest behind them stirred. Figures emerged, covered in all assortments of bones and rags and blood. The Name Taker trembled.
“Even if you can’t die, Name Taker, you can hurt,” she shouted. “Start with the names, and be quick.”
First in a whisper, then in a rising, desperate shout, the Name Taker listed names. There was no order to them; one would be in a dead language, and the next would be a name the twins recognized. The nameless watched, cheering for each other as they got their names back, brandishing their weapons and hollering, keeping back only so they wouldn’t interrupt the creature before it got to their names.
By the time Black Star got his name back, nobody could recognize the thing hanging off his sister’s arm. It was a sack of skin and bone jangling in the wind, rattling faint names into the starlit night.