One thing I could always count on was that my brother would boss me around. Or try, anyway. Also, he’d act like a horse’s behind. So I guess that was two things I could count on. Anyway, it didn’t surprise me that he scowled when I stopped to look down Mudpit Lane. On the pond at its end, past the red guardian ribbons, kids were sliding on the ice while an excited dog chased them.
“It’s getting dark,” Roth said. “We don’t have time to go to the pond.”
“Yes, we do,” I said. “It’s dark early because it’s Winterturn.”
“Mum will worry if we’re not home when she gets there.”
“That lady always keeps Mum late even on holidays.” I dodged Roth’s grip and trotted down the lane.
“Cade!” Roth shouted. His boots clomped behind me, and for a moment, I was afraid he’d grab my cloak and drag me the way he wanted to go. It wasn’t like he’d never done that. But when I looked over my shoulder, he was staring toward the pond. He smoothed his hair and walked after me.
The pond is really just a big mud pit. Dad once told me people used to dig rocks out of it, but now it was full of dirty water that stank in the summer. In the winter, I liked it, and Dad did too. He took me there a couple of months before he died. He got tired, though, and had to lean on my shoulder on the way home. Mum was mad when she found out he’d got out of bed. Today the pond was frozen for yards out all around the edges.
Like gates and doors all over the city, the gate at the lane’s end had warning ribbons tied to it, because Winterturn is the feast of Geat the Threshold Guardian. Your fate could turn if you passed through a barrier Geat put in your path on his feast day. Like all the eight gods, Geat was tricky. He gave you a chance to change but blocked it. Or so folks said. I opened the gate and walked through.
“Cade!” One of the boys shouted my name, and I recognized my friend Gil waving to me. “Beat this!” He ran and slid, arms out for balance, the dog barking along behind him.
I tore out onto the ice, braced my feet, and slid what felt like a mile. “All you had to do was ask!” I called to Gil. The red-haired boy with him laughed, and Gil shoved him. They both fell in a tangle of cloaks. The dog jumped around, wanting to play too. I decided that when Mum got home, I’d ask her again if I could have a dog.
“Wolf!” a girl called. “Come!”
The dog raced toward the shore, where a girl bent to hug it. Standing near them, Roth pretended not to look at her. A-ha. So, she was why he hadn’t dragged me away. She looked up at him from under her eyelashes. When he glanced her way, she stood up and let Wolf run back out onto the pond.
I shuffled over to Gil and Wolf, whose tongue hung out in a doggy grin. I petted his scruffy, gray fur and scratched behind his ear.
“This is Dach.” Gil jerked his thumb at the redheaded boy.
“You think that was a good slide?” Dach said. “Beat this.” Instead of heading along the edge of the pond, he ran and slid toward the center, stopping maybe three yards short of the unfrozen part of the pond. He turned to face us with one eyebrow raised.
When I looked toward shore, Wolf’s girl was talking to Roth. His face was so red, it glowed.
“Too scared?” Dach taunted.
The ice under my feet was solid. It hadn’t cracked under Dach, and he was bigger than me.
With a warrior’s whoop, I ran toward the pond’s center. Wolf galloped with me, like he was my dog. When I slid, he shot ahead, then seemed to lose his grip. Legs sprawling every which way, he spun and slid backward.
He went into the water without even much of a splash. He didn’t go far under though because he came up quickly, paddling and lifting his chin. He managed to lift a paw, but the ice broke. He didn’t make a sound, just paddled silently, swimming hard, like he knew death was grabbing at his tail.
I was running again before I decided to do it. But like Wolf’s paws, my feet didn’t stay where I put them. I pitched forward and slid on my stomach.
The water sped toward me, then stopped before it got to me. My heart jumped around in my chest.
Good, I decided. Flat on my belly, I spread my weight out so I was less likely to break more ice. I pulled myself toward Wolf on my elbows. He watched me come like I was the only thing in the world. Ice coated his whiskers and made a little white beard on his chin.
Somewhere far away, Gil was shouting. “Cade! Cade! Roth!”
When Wolf put his paw up again, I lunged and closed my hand around his leg. The bone was hard under the wet fur. He pulled himself up, trying to heave his shoulders out of the water.
“You can do it,” I cried.
There was a soft crackle. The ice sagged and crumpled. I plunged head first into the frigid water.
The water was so cold that all my muscles and bones hurt like they’d been hammered. Water weighed down my cloak and clothes. It filled my shoes and closed like a vise on my toes. I tried to kick, but between the cold and weight, my legs felt like they were pushing through molasses.
Lungs burning, I rose, but my shoulder hit something. Oh gods. Was it ice? Had I lost the hole and become trapped? Terror sent my heart jumping into my mouth.
Wait. Whatever I’d hit moved. I raised my hands to grab hold of a furry body and kicked as hard as I could, with Wolf’s legs churning beside me. Then my head broke free of the water. The air was even colder than the water, but I gulped it like I’d never get enough.
I got my shoulder under Wolf and lifted. More ice broke under him, but he kept clawing, and then he was out. He shook himself, sending bright drops into the gray air. He ran to his girl, who fell to her knees and flung her arms around his neck. She rubbed at him frantically with the edge of her cloak.
I braced my hands on the ice and tried to follow Wolf, but the ice broke. Tricky gods. Who was going to heave me out of the water on his shoulder?
People were ringed around shouting. I saw the girl, Gil, Dach, other kids. And I saw Roth, who was, of course, bossing everyone.
“Keep back!” Roth shouted. “Gil, hang onto my ankles.” Roth flung himself to his stomach and snaked toward me. Gil lay down too and grabbed Roth’s ankles. Dach did the same for Gil, and then other kids so they made a chain across the ice.
Closer and closer, Roth came. His eyes were huge. If it weren’t so cold, I’d swear there was sweat on his forehead. Then he was there. I stretched out my hand, and he grabbed my wrist. All the tension in my chest let go. Roth would never even let go of an argument. He sure as spit wasn’t going to let go of me. If I’d turned my fate by walking through the pond’s gate, it wasn’t toward death. Not today. Roth wouldn’t have it.
“Back up!” Roth bossed, and the whole chain wiggled backward, Roth dragging me. More ice broke, and then it didn’t, and I was out of the water being pulled to shore.
I rose onto my knees, and Wolf came over to lick my cheek. I buried my face in his wet fur. I wasn’t crying or anything, but still.
“That was foolish,” the girl said.
“He was saving your dog,” Roth said.
“You should take better care of him.” I glared at her. Behind her, Gil and Dach were backing away with their eyes on Roth, who did look fierce.
The girl whirled in that swirly way girls do when they want to crush you. “Wolf! Come!” She marched up Mudpit Lane with Wolf running after her.
Roth hauled me to my feet, then took off his dry cloak and traded it for my wet one. On me, the bottom of his cloak dragged on the ground. “Let’s go,” he said. He hurried me in the same direction the girl and Wolf had gone.
A red warning ribbon blew across the lane and tangled on my foot, but I kicked it aside. Geat the Threshold Guardian could keep his changes of fate to himself. For once, I didn’t mind running to keep up with Roth’s long legs because running warmed me up, even though I still shivered so hard my teeth clattered.
Roth put his arm around me and pulled me against his side. Even wearing my wet, short cloak, he felt warm. “If we hurry, we can beat Mum home. Maybe she won’t notice your wet stuff.”
Mum would notice. She always noticed. She wouldn’t be happy with either one of us.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Roth tightened his grip. “Do something that stupid again, and I’ll stuff you down the privy.”
Inside the hood of his dry cloak, I had to smile. Like I said, I could always count on Roth.
The adventure Geat has in store for Cade and Roth appears in my sole middle-grade novel, Finders Keepers.
“Winterturn” is the second short story I’ve written about Cade. The other appears here.