By Dorothy A. Winsor
What form does courage take? What is the shape of love?–Myst, the shapeshifter god
The carved horse teetered on its three legs and clattered over onto the table. I prodded its belly. I couldn’t blame it. It was hard to stand up when your legs had been cut out from under you.
Mum came out of her room, her step heavy. I snapped my spine straight at the sight of her. Her beautiful hair was completely covered by an ugly cap with flaps over her ears. I’d seen our neighbor Catter wear one like it for the grave yard visit folks made on Myst’s feast day, so I knew it was a widow’s cap. I should have expected Mum to wear one, but I had to trap my hands between my knees to keep from snatching it off.
Mum tucked a folded paper into the basket on the table. A letter, I realized. It must be her graveyard gift for Dad. Her eyes were red, and she’d been in her room a long time this morning, so I guessed writing it was hard.
Something big and slimy as a toad swelled in my throat, but I hadn’t cried at Dad’s funeral or any time since the night he died, and I wasn’t going to do it now. At the stable where I worked, Master Joff said I was tough as a tick and twice a likely to turn up where I wasn’t supposed to be. That was me. Tough and picking where I’d go by myself.
Mum put her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all right to be sad, Cade,” she said softly. “You’ll feel better if you let yourself mourn today.”
“I told you I’m not going.”
She blew out her breath in the way that meant she was done reasoning with me. “You are.” She added round ghost cakes to our basket. I’d watched her make them that morning and licked the sweet icing from the spoon.
“Why? I know what the Sceld’s Gate grave yard looks like. I’m never going back there.”
Roth slid down the ladder from our sleeping loft, his good shirt still flapping open. “You plan to ignore Myst’s Feast Day every year for the rest of your life? Never eat ghost cakes again?”
“Yes. Why not?”
“For one thing, you usually stuff them in your mouth until you’re sick.” Roth fumbled with his shirt buttons, and I realized his hands were trembling. Ha. He pretended he was so grown up and calm. He saw me watching and turned his back on me, cursing the buttons.
“Mind your language, Roth,” Mum said.
“Sorry,” Roth said over his shoulder. “Cade, don’t you want to leave your horse at the grave for Dad?”
“I messed it up.” Dad had been helping me whittle the thin legs. I tried to finish it by myself, but I was no good at being careful. It was a soldier’s horse, Dad had said. I scooped the poor thing up and stuffed it in my pocket.
Roth turned to face me, tucking his shirt in his trousers. “You aren’t scared, are you?”
“Shut up, Roth.”
“Ghost cakes is just a name,” Roth kept on because, like usual, he thought he was in charge of the world. “There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
“I’m not afraid of something as stupid as ghosts. And I said shut up!”
Mum slapped the table, making Roth and me jump. “Stop it, both of you.” Her voice shook. “It’s a god’s day. Myst asks us not to fear the unknown and to trust that love lives on. We will honor your father, and we will all be kind to one another. Get the basket, please, Roth.” She opened the door and went out to wait for us in the street, which probably meant she was sick of us.
Roth opened the cupboard and took out his battered tin whistle. He shoved it into the edge of the basket.
“You’re giving your whistle away?” I asked.
“It’s a kid’s thing,” he said.
I hadn’t even tried to guess what Roth would leave as a grave gift, because with Roth, who knew? It could be anything from a flower he’d plucked from a crack in the street to some thick leather law book. He could make amazing music on that whistle, but when I thought of it, I hadn’t heard him play in months.
Roth swung the basket off the table and hurried out to join Mum. I dragged after him. My heart fluttered like the wings of the bird that got trapped in the stable loft.
Outside, fog floated along the edge of the street, the way it often did when the year started to turn cold. Mistress Catter came out of her house along with her grown up daughter and grandchildren. They nodded to Mum and set off for the grave yard. Mum wiped her nose and tucked her handkerchief in her sleeve. Maybe she hadn’t been sick of Roth and me. Maybe she was just sad.
Guilt gnawed a chunk out of my belly. I rocked from foot to foot.
“Cade,” Mum said, “it’s for Dad.”
“Dad’s not there. He’s not anywhere.” The rein I had on myself snapped, and I bolted in the opposite direction, running like a thief with the whole city watch after him.
Behind me, Roth shouted, “Gods, Cade. Don’t be such a pig.”
“Let him go, Roth,” Mum said. “He has to face his loss himself, and he’s not ready.”
My heart twisted, but I kept running. I hated Myst. I hated Roth. I hated Dad for being dead. I hated the broken horse. I hated myself.
I dodged around people out for the holiday, tore through yards with broken fences, and slipped down every narrow passage I spotted. A stitch in my side was all that made me stop. I leaned against a high fence, panting and looking around to get my bearings. I was in a dirt alley with the windowless back of a building on one side and the fence holding me up on the other. The alley slanted down, and at the low end, fog drifted into piles. At the high end, I glimpsed a market that was empty on the holiday. I didn’t recognize it.
I looked both ways again. I knew every lane, every yard, every house, every cat and dog in the Sceld’s Gate neighborhood. I couldn’t be lost. But I was. Oh, tricky gods. I was so, so lost. Maybe I would stay that way forever. Maybe I would never feel safe again.
I slid my back down the rough fence and sat with my face on my drawn up knees. The instant my backside hit the dirt, I knew I shouldn’t have stopped running. I bit my cheek and dug my nails into my shins, but nothing did any good. I started to cry, and once I started, my whole body felt made out of crying. I shook and choked and dripped snot. At any moment, I expected to fly apart into pieces that would run around the city crying.
It must have worn me out because the next thing I knew, I was waking up. Blotting up drool with my sleeve, I looked both ways. The fog had thickened while I slept. I hauled myself to my feet and turned toward the market, but the sound of running steps made me spin around.
A little boy, maybe six years old, spurted out of the fog. “Help me!” He whirled to fling a stone into the murk, then snatched a couple more out of the dirt.
“What is it?” Heart hammering, I grabbed a stone for myself.
“A monster,” the kid choked out.
I let my arm drop. “There’s no such thing.”
“Then what’s that?” Darting forward, he hurled a stone.
Through the fog, I glimpsed a giant, gaping mouth with knife-like teeth ready to eat my heart out. The mouth’s inside was full of darkness you could fall into and be alone forever. If I’d been able to reach the kid, I’d have got hold of him and run. As it was, all I could do was lurch after him, launching stones like a catapult.
The mouth gaped and snapped shut. Whatever the thing was shook its head, let out a roar, and drew back to where the fog hid it. The kid and I waited. My heart thumped so loudly, I was surprised I could hear the kid’s heavy breathing. In the name of all that was holy, where had that come from? The world suddenly seemed very different than I’d thought.
“I think it’s gone,” the kid finally said. He handed me one of the stones he still held. “In case you need it,” he said. His voice shook, and when I looked, I saw that his chin was trembling. Before I could back away, he flung his arms around my waist and started bawling.
“There, there,” I said, which was pretty stupid, but it made me feel better when I was little and Mum or Dad said it. I put an arm around him, and we both sat down in the same place I’d used to cry. “You were very brave,” I told him, “which is great because scary stuff can come along when you least expect it. A person needs courage.”
The kid cried like he’d never stop.
Maybe it was this spot by the fence. I swore to myself that I would never come here again, assuming I could figure out where here was.
I shoved the stone he’d given me into my pocket, meaning to put both arms around him, and when I did, my fingers brushed the carved horse. I pulled it out and offered it to the kid.
“See this? My dad says–said that soldiers carry little horses like this because it’s a courage symbol. You should have it because of how brave you were.”
He still had his mouth arranged to squawk, but he thought better of it, sniffled, and took the horse. “It’s broken,” he said.
“Yes, it is. He was in a battle, see? And he was hurt, but he kept fighting, and he survived. So that broken leg is like a battle scar.”
Slowly the kid smiled “The other horses would see that and know how tough he was.” Slipping out from under my arm, he stood and galloped a few yards toward the foggy end of the alley, hopping the horse through the air and making clip-clop noises with his tongue.
“We should get you home.” I looked toward the market. “Which way?”
He said nothing, and when I turned back, he was far enough into the fog that I could barely see him.
“Hey!” I ran after him, but the fog was doing odd things. The kid’s shape loomed as tall as the fence and then got all wobbly. I stretched my hands out because I couldn’t see a blessed thing. My fingers jammed against wood. I felt around and found a fence that reached over my head. “Kid?” I called. “Where are you?” Silence.
As I groped around, the fog lifted, and I realized this end of the alley was completely walled off. There was nowhere for the kid to go. There was nowhere for him or the monster to have come from.
I whirled. I could see all the way to alley’s other end. No one was in sight.
My heart sped up. Tricky gods. What had just happened here? I tried to make sense of it and could come to only one conclusion. I must have dreamed. I was asleep, and I dreamed.
That made me feel a little better, but I hustled out of the alley anyway. I went a block to my right and recognized the corner of Fish Guts Alley and Burping Cat Lane. How could I have thought I was lost?
The day had worn away while I slept. I needed to get home. Mum got dangerous if Roth or I stayed out after dark. I picked my way through familiar short cuts, turned onto our street, and pushed through our front door.
Roth had been pacing the room. Now he stopped with his hands on his hips. “About time.”
Mum appeared in the doorway to her room. “Thank the gods.” I was braced, but to my surprise, she went back into her room rather than yelling at me.
I ignored Roth and went to stand in her doorway, watching as she pulled off the widow’s cap. Her dark hair slid loose, and she looked like herself again. She folded the cap carefully and laid it in the box Dad had carved her name onto. “I’m sorry, Mum.”
She came to kiss the top of my head. “I know. Go to bed.” When I left, she was touching the box.
I climbed the ladder to our loft. Roth was already there, turning something over in his hands. “What’s that?” I asked.
He held it up. It was a wooden whistle. He had lit the lantern that Mum let me sleep with now, and in its light, the wood of the whistle gleamed liked gold. It was painted with a half-risen sun, the symbol of Cild, the child god.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“A man at the grave yard gave it to me. I didn’t know him, but he said he knew Dad.”
I pretended to concentrate on untangling the knot in my shoelace. “How was it?”
He knew what I meant. “It was…nice.” He sounded surprised. “People left their gifts and ate ghost cakes. That lady whose baby died? The one Mum took care of? She came and sat by Mum, and I think Mum felt better after. It was so peaceful that I fell asleep.”
An odd note in his voice made me narrow my eyes at him. He was frowning, puzzling about something. A question popped into my head. “I slept too,” I said. And then, trying to sound casual, I asked, “Did you dream?”
His gaze shot up to meet mine. “Maybe,” he said cautiously. He tapped the whistle against his palm. “But I don’t think so.” He set the whistle on his bed and started to undress.
I kicked off my shoes, stripped off my shirt, and was dropping my trousers when the stone the kid had given me clattered out of my pocket, clearly as real as Roth’s whistle. I picked it up and turned it the way Roth had turned the whistle. On the stone’s flat bottom was a stain shaped like a horse–a symbol of courage. In case I needed it.
And all at once, I didn’t think I’d been dreaming either.
I put the stone carefully on the narrow shelf over my bed and blew out the lantern, still thinking about everything–the kid, the monster, the crying, and the courage. As I lay down, Roth piped music into the dark. The notes were sweet as ghost cakes.
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Earthquakes? Fires? Plague? Twelve-year-old Cade tries to ignore how they’re increasing as the new year approaches while he and his sixteen-year-old brother search for their missing mother. But there comes a moment when he has to choose who or what he’s going to save.