- Mild battle-related violence (no gore)
The empty casket was set on fire. It lay on a roughhewn raft that was crafted earlier and loaded with marsh grass and kindling to make the pyre, and now, a few of the village elders pushed it into the sea. Juri glanced at the flames once, then turned his attention to the girl clutching her father’s hand. Even from here, he could see Triska needed her father to put his arm around her, but he didn’t—he only stared into the ocean.
If Juri was next to her, he would brush his arm against hers. Let her know she wasn’t alone because Triska liked snuggling close to people. Now that they were ten, he didn’t hug her in public anymore, but he still let her sit nestled beside him, even if the other boys at school teased him about being friends with a girl.
Juri gazed at the casket again. A burial at sea wasn’t common in the village, but since the sea had taken Triska’s mother, the village elders thought it fitting.
“Come on, Juri,” his mother said. “We’ll go down and say a few words to Triska and her father.”
He swallowed. “What do I say?”
His mother rubbed his hair the way he liked. “You don’t have to say anything. Just walking over will let Triska know you’re here for her. Later, you can find her before we leave for our trip and say goodbye.”
His stomach roiled. When he’d first learned he and his ma were going to visit her home clan up north, he hadn’t slept for days because he couldn’t wait to leave. Maybe up there his ma would give in and let him shoot a bow and arrow—heck, other ten-year-olds in Ryba had been shooting for years. But as the day for leaving grew closer, he’d caught his ma staring into space, her eyes watery and sad and he’d grown suspicious about their trip.
His mother loved her old clan up north. She’d even loved the long dark winters. Something was off.
Then Triska’s mother died, and he didn’t want to leave Triska behind. Alone.
“When are we coming back to Ryba? It will help her feel better if she knows.” Maybe his ma would finally answer the question if he made it seem like Triska needed to know.
Ma’s small smile didn’t reach her eyes. Was she sad because they were at a funeral? Or because of the question? “Our visit will be for a while.” He’d sprung this question on her loads of times and always got the same answer.
He growled low in his throat. Recently he’d learned he could make the noise, and he’d practiced ever since. It was almost perfect. He could growl in an alarming and scary way or as more of a warning. So far, he’d only practiced on seagulls, but soon he’d try the fishmonger’s cat.
He’d asked the peltwalkers who shifted into wolves—wolfwalkers—and he was the only one who could do it. Even his mother couldn’t make the noise. At least it was something he could do that the others couldn’t. There were five wolfwalkers in his class, and he was the only one who hadn’t connected with his wolf form yet.
His mother was a wolfwalker, so he should be too. And she’d said she got her pelt when she was nine. So why didn’t he have his pelt yet?
Ma said that when a peltwalker reached a certain age, they were gifted with the bit of pelt that would allow them to take their animal form. She was skimpy with the details of how he’d get his pelt, though. Supposedly it was some kind of mystical experience, and it couldn’t be described.
He kicked at a patch of dirt as he trudged up to Triska. Heck, Ma could at least try to describe it.
A line had formed, the entire village trying to pay their respects to Triska’s dad. Juri’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Mr. Sekelsky. Triska always got the highest marks in school; last year, she’d won the writing contest, beating even the sixth-and seventh-year students. Juri was there when Triska ran up to her father and told him. All he’d done was nod once. Juri had wondered how much trouble he’d get in if he’d kicked Triska’s father in the shins—hard—but Triska said her father was often distracted, and it was fine. From that moment on, he didn’t like Triska’s dad.
Seeing her upset always made him want to claw at everything and everyone around her until whatever made her upset, was gone. Forever. His hands balled into fists. Right now, he wanted to help her, but he didn’t know how.
And he’d have to leave tomorrow.
When he stood in front of Triska, the worry lines between her eyebrows faded. His mother spoke to Triska’s father, and Juri leaned forward. “Sneak out to the cove after dusk,” he whispered.
She glanced up at her father. “I don’t know if I can.”
“You have to. It’s our last chance to talk before I leave.” He glanced up at Ma. “I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
Her lower lip trembled.
After all his excitement about the trip, he didn’t want to go. Triska needed him, not her father, who’d just go out fishing. He let his hand brush against hers. “It’ll be all right.”
His mother put her arm on Juri’s shoulder and nudged him to keep walking. “The cove,” he whispered furiously. Triska gave him a tiny nod.
When he reached Triska’s dad, he wanted to bare his teeth, but making faces would probably make Ma yell at him for an hour. A frequent occurrence even though he tried to avoid it. His eyes narrowed a fraction, and he nodded, then glanced pointedly at Triska. Pay attention to her. Triska’s father ignored him and greeted the person next in line.
As they walked back to their house, away from the main part of town and set back near the forest, Juri slipped away from his mother and trotted back toward the market. He had something he needed to get before he met Triska.
As night settled in, Juri leaned against the tree trunk of the great oak by the shore in the small cove near town, watching the reflection of the two moons in the ocean spread below him. Waves crashed against the beach, the surf raging the way it did before a storm rolled in. The moons appeared to be dancing, wobbling across the sea. It was the night of the harvest moons, making the tide rise higher, and the sea roil. This was their place.
Where was Triska?
Sneaking out of his house was easy. After years of battling to keep him in bed all night, last month Ma had relented and now he was allowed to roam until they doused the gas lamps at midnight.
A twig snapped, and Juri straightened. Triska trudged up the dune, her shoulders slumped and her head down. He’d always been a lot taller than her. He liked to rub it in her face how fast he grew, but tonight she looked smaller. Frail.
“Your old man try to keep you in?”
She shook her head. “No, but there were a lot of people in the house, baking bread and leaving food. I had to wait until no one was looking to duck out the back.”
He flung himself down on the sand and patted the ground next to him. “Come sit.”
Triska frowned. “It’s high tide, what if a big wave comes? The sea will drag me in.”
Juri studied her. She loved the ocean, and she’d never worried about it before. Besides, the tide never reached this high. “I’ll keep you safe.”
After a moment, she nodded. She settled next to him and sidled close until she pressed against his side. His stomach did a funny little flip. “How are you doing?” His voice came out strange—soft in a way he’d never spoken before.
She shrugged and leaned against him.
They sat like that for a long time, Triska staring at the ocean, her eyes wet. Ma was right; he didn’t have to say anything. All he needed to do was sit beside her for as long as she wanted him to.
Triska sniffled. “I should probably head back.”
“I wanted to give you something before I leave.” Juri reached into his pocket and pulled out the ring he’d had the blacksmith fashion out of a nail for a horseshoe. He’d had to sweet talk the smithy for ten minutes, and then sweep the shop and wash away the seagull crap from his stoop as payment.
Seagulls were the worst.
Her eyes were big and blue as she stared up at him. There were so many things he wanted to say, but the words seemed all tangled up. He cleared his throat. “When we’re grown, things will be different.”
He handed the ring to Triska, and their fingers touched. “I promise when we’re old enough, I’m going to marry you.”
Triska slid the ring onto her middle finger, her long lashes lowering as she examined it. She made a soft sighing sound. “I love this ring.”
A sense of everything being … right … slid over him, warm and comforting. “I won’t be away long.” The words seemed to come from somewhere else, somewhere deep inside him. “I promise I’ll always be here to protect you.”
Her head snapped up. “You need protection, too. I pull you out of the water every time you capsize my skiff.”
He ruffled his hair. “Well … boats don’t like me. That’s not protection, you’re just helping.”
Her mouth puckered in a way he knew meant she was about to argue. “What about the time you were pretending to slay a dragon near the stables, but you were only slashing around with a stick near the smithy’s mean donkey, and I pulled you back right before it kicked you in the head.”
“Okay, two times you’ve helped—”
“No, what about the time—”
“Fine!” He crossed his arms and turned back to the ocean.
Triska nudged him with her shoulder. “I agree to marry you.”
He hadn’t realized it was a question. “Oh. That’s good.”
A shimmery golden light filled the overlook. Juri shot to his feet and grabbed Triska, tucking her behind him.
She clutched his waist and peeked around his arm. “What is it?”
A golden symbol hung in the air, a circle with a wavy line moving horizontally across its middle. Juri swiped at it, and his hand passed right through, but the symbol didn’t go away. “Dunno.”
It began spinning, then split in two and shot toward him and Triska. One beam of light hit him square in the chest, and the other hit her. He yelped, but it didn’t hurt. It was warm. Pleasant.
A faint whiff of blackthorn blossom filled the air. In May, these hills filled with the white flowers of the thorny shrub, declaring spring had arrived. But May passed a long time ago.
Triska rubbed her chest. “Gads, what was that?”
Juri peeked down the front of his shirt. A perfect replica of the symbol in the air was tattooed in gold on his chest. “I’m hit! That thing branded me.”
She rubbed her chest but didn’t look down her own shirt. “Maybe it marked me, too. It’s all … warm here. Is this magic?”
“Must be.” He scanned the cove. If there was magic, there must be a magicwielder nearby, but the beach stood quiet, the only movement the soft sway of the dune grass. “Let’s get out of here.”
They raced back into town, and he aimed for the stable next to the tavern. Warm and quiet, they often snuck away here. He liked climbing the rafters, and he’d swing around and tell Triska stories, trying to make her laugh so hard she fell over.
When they reached the main road, they slowed, and Triska rubbed her chest again, the worry lines back on her brow. “What was that? Will we get in trouble? Is something going to happen to us?”
He puffed his own chest out. “Nah. I told you. I’ll protect you.” A pleasant tingle spread from his heart. “And I’m coming back real soon to see you. Don’t worry.”
“I’ll write you.” Her eyes narrowed. “You write me back.”
He winced. “Yeah, yeah.” She knew how much he hated making his letters. Pencils always seemed strange in his hand. He couldn’t make the pretty loops and neat letters Triska did.
Before they could duck inside the stable, a group of older women saw Triska and made a beeline straight for them. The one in front, Mags, put her arm around Triska. “What are you two doing out here? Come on, dear, I’ll bring you home. Your father must be looking for you.”
Triska shot him a quick look, held up her ring again and smiled for the first time. “I’ll see you soon. I hope.”
He nodded and watched her walk away. He’d be back soon. She needed him.