He woke up with his fingers still intertwined in hers. The sound of the campfire cackled nearby, accompanied by her not-quite rhythmic snoring.
The night sky was bright with starlight. They’ve been asleep for what – three hours? Four? Hours lost their meaning where there was no one to keep track of their passing. The only thing that mattered to these travelers was whether there was light enough to travel, or dark enough to sleep.
He got up and kissed her on the forehead first, before dusting away the wet grass that clung to the fabric of his shirt. One would have – should have gotten used to this by now, after months spent in the wild; but not him.
He fed the fire with a small cut of deerfat when he was done. The smells of damp earth and rotting vegetation gave way to the pleasant fragrance of meat roasting over an open fire. She stirred next to him.
“Mmm, what’s cooking?”
He laughed. “Fats. You want some of it?”
She mumbled something in reply and sat up, rubbing her eyes. There were nights when it got so dark, that it was only by the light of dancing orange flames that he looked upon her face. Tonight, however, the world that was normally lost in shadow around her was bathed in a pale blue glow.
“Wow! Would you look at that!” The wonder in her voice was contagious.
“The stars! Look!” She pointed towards the sky visible above them, framed by branches and tree leaves – and he saw the light of a thousand distant stars waiting. Twinkling. Glimmering.
“It’s really something, isn’t it?” She breathed.
“It is, indeed.”
“Look! There’s the north star right there,” she pointed towards the object of her description. “That’s how people find their way at night.”
He nodded and returned his gaze to her. “You know what they say about stars?”
She turned to face him with a sudden look of sadness. “Dead?”
“Dead. Their light takes hundreds and millions of years to reach us, you see – chances are, by the time we are able to perceive their light, the stars themselves have all died out.”
She blinked, and looked back up at the display of stars. “Dead. I see.”
They sat for a while like this, a silence passing between them. The fire cackled on, burning up the last bits of deerfat lost in it.
“Where I come from,” she started, “I was told that the stars are old souls. The spirits of people who have gone before us. My mom used to tell me these stories at night. And at the end of our lives, we will also abandon our earthly bodies to join them in their song – the great big chorus in the sky.”
“The song of stars,” he mused. “Sounds like a deliciously romantic thing.”
“It is,” she nodded. “But I guess it’s even more so, considering what you just said.”
He raised his eyebrows at this. “What, dead stars?”
“Mmhmm. Dead stars, old souls,” she looked at him. “They linger on in the sky, even after they’re long gone. They’re still there – guiding us down our path. Showing us the way.”
Here she stopped talking altogether, and sat hugging her knees, looking up at the sky filled with the lights of thousand old souls.
He crawled over next to her and slipped an arm around her waist, joining in her stargazing; and there they sat, watching the stars until they fell asleep for the second time.
And even as they slept, the stars watched over them – as they always had. As they always will.