Anders gripped the oars tightly, his muscles strained against the force generated by the storm. Freezing rain stung the side of his face as he rowed furiously through the rise and fall of angry ocean waves. The storm had come without warning, catching Anders and his younger cousin by surprise.
“Thomas!” Anders yelled against the gale force wind. Thomas clung tightly to the ribbing on the floor of the small fishing boat, fearing for his life. “The boat is taking on too much water! Grab the bucket and bail!” Anders saw his cousin lift his head briefly and search for the bailing bucket. “Now, Thomas, do it now or we’ll sink!”
Thomas gathered his courage and let go of the floor he had clung to so desperately. He grabbed the bucket and vigorously shoveled water over the side of the swaying boat.
Squinting through the downpour, Anders could just see the rocky shoreline of Highborn Bay. The two were nearly back inside the safety of the bay’s calmer waters. He was well aware that they had reached almost the exact spot where Anders had been eighteen years ago, when his family’s ship had wrecked in a spring storm. The details of the tragedy were lost to Anders’ memory because he’d only been one-year-old at the time, but he’d heard his uncle tell the story countless times since then.
He and his parents had sailed for nearly a week from Southland to Grandwood, a city nestled along the northern coast of Westland, where Anders’ uncle Theodor and his newly pregnant wife were waiting to greet them. Anders’ family was on track to dock in Grandwood’s port when a storm suddenly forced the ship off course, missing the port and wrecking into the rocky spit of land that formed half of Highborn Bay. Theodor found infant Anders washed ashore among the ship’s wreckage. The only survivor, he was left without parents, yet fortunately with his uncle and aunt to raise him.
The wind was unrelenting as they struggled to reach the bay. Thomas continued to shovel the salty water out of the small boat as wave after wave piled over the bow. Anders heaved the final strokes on the oars, skimming into calmer waters. It wasn’t long before they were pulling the boat on shore. Thomas’ younger sister, Kirsten, had watched as the two rowed themselves into the bay. She ran down the hill from the stone farmhouse through the rain, eager to help them despite becoming drenched in the downpour.
“Here,” Anders said, handing her one of several baskets overflowing with salmon. “Take this up to the house.”
Kirsten’s blue eyes widened upon seeing the size of their days’ catch. Taking the basket she staggered for a moment, allowing herself to adjust her feet under the surprising weight of the basket.
As she hauled the catch back up the hill, Anders called after her, “Kirsten, have Theodor come help us with the rest.” Anders and Thomas filled their arms with waterlogged fishing gear and the remaining baskets of fish, struggling to carry them up the hill to the house.
When they reached the front porch, Anders dropped his load on the ground and heard Kirsten say from the open doorway, “Anders, I couldn’t find him. I think he went out to do chores.”
Looking at Thomas with a furrowed brow, Anders said, “In this weather? He’ll probably need help. Thomas, finish bringing up the gear. I’ll go help with the chores.” Thomas nodded and headed back down to the boat.
“Don’t be too long,” Kirsten told them, stepping onto the wooden covered porch and drying her sandy-blonde hair with a towel. “Dinner is nearly ready.”
Anders stepped out from under the protection of the porch and headed in the opposite direction away from the bay and toward the farm. He looked in the barn, the corral, and around the rest of the small homestead. Theodor was nowhere to be seen. Anders noticed most of the chores had already been completed. He decided to look behind the house, along the edge of the woods. Sometimes when the animals got out, they often wandered away from the farm into the trees. Though hard to tell in the rain, Anders thought he saw a set of footprints leading into the woods. He followed them. In places where the ground had not yet washed them away, Anders could make out just enough to see the outline of his uncle’s boot tracks leading him farther away from the farm.
Anders thought about getting the others to help him search, but decided he would go a little farther before alarming them. His mind racing with possibilities as to why Theodor would be wandering into the woods, he continued following the tracks. Before long, the lone footprints angled sharply to the right. Anders saw they went up and over a small ridge.
If I can’t see him from the top of this ridgeline, I’ll go back for Kirsten and Thomas, he thought to himself.
Night was approaching fast and from the top Anders had a hard time seeing clearly down the backside of the ridge. He squinted into the darkness, hoping to glimpse any sign of his uncle. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw something move. He watched as a figure walked out into a small clearing on the backside of the ridge below him. It was Theodor, Anders was sure because of his uncle’s recognizable silver hair. He cupped his hands around his mouth to shout down to him, but held his breath when he saw someone join Theodor in the clearing. Anders couldn’t make out who it was, this tall figure sporting dark clothes.
I have to get a closer look, he thought.
He looked around for a way to get closer without being seen. He knew his uncle would be furious with him if he learned Anders was spying on him, but something in his gut told him he needed to investigate what Theodor was doing out here.
To his left a cluster of short trees extended about half way down toward the clearing where Theodor and the strange figure stood talking. The dim evening light, combined with the trees’ foliage, would be enough to provide cover.
He quickly ran to the thicket of trees. Water that had pooled on the leaves drenched him as he parted the branches. The sound of the rain falling covered the noise of his footsteps as he grew closer. Anders stayed low, crouching to keep from being seen.
He paused for a moment to see if he could hear what they were saying. Their voices were still too muffled to hear clearly, so he carefully crept forward to the edge of the small trees. Here, he was able to make out snippets of their conversation. Through a space between the branches, he could see they were arguing.
Dressed entirely in black, the tall man with Theodor wore a broad sword strapped to his belt. The stranger’s face was weathered, creased and tanned from his travels. He displayed an air of ruggedness that Anders had only seen a handful of times on the faces of soldiers and mercenaries passing through Grandwood. Anders strained to hear what they might be arguing about.
“He’s not ready,” Theodor said sternly.
“You have to tell him,” the stranger urged. “The time has come and he needs to know the truth.”
“Are you sure there isn’t more time?” Theodor asked the man in black. “How can you be sure he’s the one they’re searching for?”
“He may be your kin, but that doesn’t change anything. He will have to face it, whether he’s ready or not,” the stranger replied in a commanding tone. “You have known as well as I that this day would come. Powerful forces are stirring in the east. The elves talk of orcs and kurr assembling by the masses. An evil that was once a great threat to the five nations of Kartania is clawing its way back into the world.”
“So the rumors are true,” Theodor noted soberly. “I thought those days of peril left when he did.”
“You must have known he wouldn’t stay in the shadows forever. He is coming back out from whatever rock he’s been hiding under,” the stranger said coldly.
Unconsciously leaning forward to hear more clearly, Anders put his weight against a small dead limb. Suddenly it snapped. He began to slide out from his hiding place, nearly exposing himself. Luckily, he grabbed hold of a low-hanging branch just in time; this one did not break.
Upon hearing the branch break, the man in black abruptly stopped talking and turned toward the hillside. He looked directly where Anders knelt in hiding. Anders didn’t move, hoping the dim lighting and vegetation would conceal him.
“Did you hear that?” the man asked Theodor as he stared at the clump of trees.
Turning around to see what the man was staring at, Theodor answered, “I didn’t hear anything.”
“We are being watched,” the man in black said shortly.
“Don’t be ridiculous. No one knows we’re here,” Theodor said turning to face the man once again. The man, however, had disappeared leaving Theodor standing alone in the rain. He turned back and stared for a while at the slope, scanning for whatever it was the stranger had heard.
Anders’ heart nearly beat out of his chest. It seemed so loud; he was surprised Theodor couldn’t hear it. Theodor kept his gaze on the vegetation where Anders hid and even took a step toward him. A rabbit darted out from its hiding place just below where Anders crouched. It scurried across the open slope, through the rainfall, and down into its hole.
Theodor stopped his advancement and said to himself, “stupid rabbit.” He left the clearing and headed back toward the house. Anders waited to make sure he was well out of sight before leaving his hiding place. Then he ran back through the woods as fast as he could.
While hurrying back toward the house, he thought to himself, what did they mean an evil was crawling back into the land? Who was it Theodor needed to tell something to and why had he decided not to do it? Was the man talking about his cousin, Thomas? And who was it they were talking about hiding in the shadows? The thoughts swirled in his head as ran.
Anders knew he had to beat Theodor back to the house. If he didn’t get back before his uncle, Thomas and Kirsten would ask him questions. If they asked him the right questions, they were sure to uncover that he had not been helping Theodor with the chores. Anders didn’t want to risk his uncle or cousins discovering his spying. The secret his uncle was keeping from them might damage their family’s relationship, even more than the death of Thomas and Kirsten’s mother had just three years ago; that was the last thing he wanted.
When Anders opened the door he saw Thomas tending the fire and Kirsten setting the dinner table, both unaware of Anders’ newly discovered secret. Shaking off water like a wet dog, Anders closed the door behind him.
“Where’s father?” Thomas asked noticing Theodor wasn’t with him.
“He was just behind me. I’m sure he’ll be in shortly,” Anders answered, relieved to know he’d made it back before his uncle. He rushed to his room to dry off and change into dry clothes. In his room, Anders looked at his reflection in the small mirror on the wall next to his closet. He quickly practiced a straight-faced expression as he imagined how talking to his uncle would go. Throwing on a dry shirt and rubbing the water out of his thick brown hair, Anders practiced his unsurprised face one more time before returning to the dining room. Joining his cousins at the table, he smiled lightly at them, trying to avoid any suspicious looks from their piercing blue eyes.
Soon, Theodor was wiping his muddy boots on the floor mat and shedding his saturated outer layers. Hanging his coat to dry, placing his boots by the crackling fire, and taking a seat at the dinner table, he acted as if nothing was different from any other day.
Once they were all gathered at the table, he asked, “Tell me about your day. What happened?”
Thomas recounted the day’s events as Kirsten and Anders began to hungrily inhale their sausage and potato dinner. He told his father how he and Anders had caught the most salmon they’d ever brought in while fishing. He also bragged that because of his heroism and ability to remain calm, he had saved them from almost sinking in the storm.
“Is that so?” Theodor said astonished, his thick eyebrows rising to expose the bright blue hue of his eyes.
“Nope,” Anders said through a mouthful of sausage. “He was shaking like a baby. I nearly had to bail the water out myself and row us back to shore at the same time.” He smiled at his cousin, who turned red in the face.
Thomas scowled at Anders’ brotherly banter and stuck the tip of his tongue out though his pursed lips in his direction.
“I just tell it how it happened,” Anders said, still smiling at his younger cousin. “We did catch quite a lot of fish out there today,” he added to Thomas’ credit. “Should be able to make some good money at the festival tomorrow.”
Theodor congratulated them on their success and told Thomas he was sure his version of the story wasn’t far from the truth.
After dinner, when the four of them turned in for the night, Anders lay in bed thinking about what Theodor was hiding from them. The conversation he’d overheard with the strange man kept replaying in his head. Anders lay awake late into the night thinking through all of the possible explanations for what he’d heard. He wondered if he should tell Kirsten or Thomas about it. He fell asleep not knowing what he would do with the sensitive information.
The rising sun beamed golden rays across Highborn Bay as it warmed thin patches of snow left behind from the heavy winter. The storm had passed during the night. Songbirds sang and spread their wings, flying through the clear blue skies. Anders awoke to floorboards squeaking under Kirsten and Thomas’ feet. They shuffled over to the kitchen and began preparing the morning meal of eggs, sausage, bread and Anders’ favorite tea loaded with caffeine called mate. Theodor always pronounced it wrong and Anders grew tired of correcting him, “It’s mah-teh, not matee,” he would say irritated.
He was still half asleep when he joined his cousins around the table. Unlike his uncle, who’d already been up for a half hour, Anders was not much of a morning person until he had his mate. Theodor walked in through the front door in his usual chipper mood. He had just finished the morning chores.
“Good morning,” he said, rubbing the top of Kirsten’s head, messing up her shoulder-length hair.
“Stop that!” she whined and ducked her head to the side, attempting to avoid her father’s playful hand.
“How are we feeling this morning? Ready to go to the biannual Grandwood Festival?” Theodor asked, still chuckling at Kirsten’s reaction.
“I’ll let you know once I’ve finished my mah-teh,” Anders replied emphasizing the syllables for his uncle. He held the mug tightly, his hands wrapped around its warmth.
“You’ll want to be at the festival’s market early if you are wanting to sell all of your salmon,” Theodor said while pouring himself a hot cup of tea. He gently blew on it and said, “tasty stuff this matee.” He glanced at Anders who shook his head and smiled. Kirsten, Thomas and Anders agreed with him about getting an early start but remained seated waiting for the caffeine to take effect.
Thomas was the first to leave the table. Anders watched him bring the horse and carriage around to the front door and load up their baskets of salmon. He wondered if he should talk with Theodor about the argument with the stranger he overheard the night before. But when he turned to look at his uncle, who was laughing at something Kirsten had said, he decided it was not the right time.
Anders took one last swig of his tea and said with a hint of sarcasm, “Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go to town; we need to be at the festival early if we are to sell all of our hard-earned salmon.” Theodor smiled exposing his tea-stained teeth in acknowledgement of Anders’ remark.
Anders jumped into the back of the wagon alongside Kirsten. Theodor and Thomas rode up front on the wagon’s bench seat.
“And… we’re off,” Theodor said with reins in hand.
The crisp morning air washed over their fair-skinned faces as they trotted down the road to the City of Grandwood. The dirt road followed the edge of the forest as it wound through rolling foothills. The city was nestled neatly between the Pelagic Ocean and the Grandwood Mountains. After nearly a half-hour of riding, they crested a hill, able to see the sunlight glinting off the city’s many rooftops and buildings.
It was the first time any of them had seen Grandwood since the arrival of the thousands of visitors for the biannual festival and Grandwood Games. At the far end of the city, Anders could see the masses of vendors’ and visitors’ tents that had sprung up over the last several days. The temporary gathering extended down the beach, nearly doubling the size of the coastal city.
“Anders, do you think you’re ready for the competition?” Theodor asked. “It begins tomorrow.”
“I’m nervous,” he began. “I’m also confident I will finish this year. My goal is to complete the event, not to win. Although winning would be nice,” he added smiling.
“The Grandwood Games is the most fierce and challenging competition of any in the five nations,” Theodor spoke as if he was an announcer for the event. “This is the fiftieth year it’s been held and nearly half the contestants don’t complete it. Of course you know that because you were one of them last time,” he chuckled lightly looking back at Anders. “You were lucky I knew the judges and they made an exception for you. After how it ended for you though, I would never advise anyone to compete while still under age. Just try to relax and enjoy the festivities while you can. There will be plenty of time to be nervous tomorrow,” he said trying to buoy his nephew’s confidence.
“I’ll be betting on you, so you’d better do well this year,” Kirsten chimed in. “And if you decide not to compete at the last minute, I will take your place. I may need to disguise myself so the judges think it’s you, but I could pull it off,” she said with great self-confidence.
“Kirsten, you think you’re so funny, don’t you! Too bad you must be eighteen to participate,” Thomas said mocking her.
“In all seriousness,” Anders said, “I know you could probably hold your own with the best of them, but you must not make the same mistake I did. You can cheer me on this time, and in two years we’ll be able to compete alongside one another.”
“Hey Thomas,” Kirsten said, trying to shift the focus off herself, “It must drive you crazy not being able to compete next year when you turn eighteen. Too bad it’s a biannual event, because all of the greatest contestants in history have done their best in their eighteenth year.”
Thomas balled his fists together tightly in an attempt to hold back his anger. He knew what his sister was trying to do to him. “It’ll be worth the wait,” he said through a clenched jaw. “Then I can crush you at your first games.”
“There must be a mutual level of respect for one another among all athletes,” Theodor said, attempting to end the argument. “That includes the both of you.”
Kirsten stuck her tongue out at her older brother behind his back while her father spoke.
“Real mature,” Anders said in a low voice, giving her a loving shove with his forearm.
As they rode across town toward the festival’s market, Anders enjoyed observing the many cultures represented at the event. People of all nationalities had come to Grandwood to participate in the trade and commerce. The market was beginning to fill with people when they found an open lot for their stand. Anders and Thomas used the wagon as their booth, displaying their fresh salmon in several wicker baskets. Kirsten and Theodor unhooked the horse and led her over to a nearby hitching post.
It wasn’t long before the roar of the market was in full effect. The four of them had little trouble selling their fresh fish. They sold out within an hour.
Feeling the plump pouch of coins they’d just acquired, Theodor said, “Well done. This is more money than this family has had in months. I say we split up into groups and get supplies for the farm before we lose focus and become lost to all the festival has to offer.” The three of them nodded their heads in agreement. “Anders, you and Thomas get supplies for the boat, while Kirsten and I get the rest. Sound like a plan?”
They set out into the vast market to gather what they needed. After Thomas and Anders had most of their supplies loaded into the wagon, Anders said to his cousin, “I’d better go find the registration tent for tomorrow’s competition. I’ll track you down afterward.”
“Okay, sounds good to me,” Thomas replied. “I’ll let father and Kirsten know. I’ll be trying exotic food and checking out all the new things people are selling this year.”
“Have fun and don’t get food poisoning,” Anders said slapping Thomas on the back. He winced in pain because of the sunburn he’d suffered after spending the day fishing under the spring sun before the storm hit. He turned to tell Anders off, but his cousin had already disappeared into the crowd.
Anders pushed his way through the mass of people toward the registration tent. When he reached the beach and located the tent, he paused just outside the door. His nervousness came rushing back and his heart pounded fast. He took several deep breaths to calm himself down.
Exhaling, he reached out to open the tent door. Just as his hand wrapped around the handle, he was knocked violently off his feet. For a moment, he was lost. The world around him was a blur. He’d lost his bearings and found himself entangled with whoever had come barreling through the doorway in such a hurry. As he tumbled free from the stranger, he regained his composure. Rising to his feet, still confused about exactly what had just happened, Anders saw the man scramble to his feet and frantically try to escape. Two people from the registration tent rushed out after him.
“Thief! Stop that man! Stop that thief!” they yelled, hands raised pointing at the man who was now gaining speed along the crowded beach.
Anders quickly made sense of what was happening. Cursing under his breath, he took off at a dead sprint after the thief. As he raced through the crowd, he very quickly found himself gaining on the man. Running past tents and wagons, he saw a vendor with a row of handmade tool handles. The fleeing thief turned sharply to the left and bowled through a group of people, knocking them out of his way. Anders quickly grabbed a shovel handle as he passed the vendor. He rounded the corner and saw he had a clear shot at the man. He hurled the hard piece of wood with a fierce side-handed throw. It spun twice through the air with great speed, colliding into the back of the man’s head with a loud, CRACK! Instantly the man toppled to the ground like a sack of potatoes, dropping the large bags in his hands, spilling the contents. The people around him gasped when they saw the man fall, surprised to see such a violent end to the chase.
Anders rushed to the unconscious man. Beside him, the two bags of gold coins he’d stolen lay scattered on the ground. One of the people working at the registration tent had been just a few moments behind Anders throughout the chase. She quickly came to his side.
“Thank you so much!” Anders heard the girl say with a hint of an accent.
Anders lifted his head to see her walking swiftly toward him. Her brown eyes met his as her long amber hair ran down behind her shoulders. Her darker skin shone brilliantly in the light of the spring sun, captivating Anders. She was beautiful.
He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Anders managed something of a smile and rubbed the back of his sunburned neck. After what felt like much too long a silence, he finally squeaked out, “Yeah, don’t mention it.”
She chuckled at his inability to smoothly start a conversation. “That man took all of the proceeds for the games tomorrow. He snatched them from me when my back was turned. If he’d gotten away with it, I would be out of a job for sure,” she said to Anders. “I bet you weren’t expecting him to come barging through the door, were you?”
Anders, still smiling at her like an idiot, joked, “I sure wasn’t. I’m just surprised he held on to those heavy bags when he ran me over.” She smiled at him showing Anders the full beauty of her face and he felt himself instantly relax. “Well, I’m happy you won’t be getting fired. Let me help you pick up this mess and take the bags back to the tent.”
“That would be great! My name is Maija,” she said, extending her hand toward him.
“Anders,” he replied taking her hand and shaking it.
She seemed to be examining his face as they shook hands and said, “I like the color of your eyes.”
Anders blushed, the redness rising up his neck and across his sunburned face. “Thanks. The brown in your eyes matches the color of your hair beautifully,” Anders heard the words come out before he realized it might be rude to give a girl he didn’t know such a tender compliment.
She smiled after seeing his facial expression change to humiliation, “Yours are lovely too. They’re like the color of a storm rolling across the sea. What do they call it?”
“My uncle calls it gray-haze,” he said bashfully.
“I haven’t met anyone with gray eyes before,” she said.
“I find that hard to believe,” Anders said.
“Where I come from there aren’t many people who have bright eyes,” she said, gazing longingly into Anders’ eyes.
“Where is that?” he asked.
“A small island off the coast of Southland,” she said with a slightly accented Landish tone that differed faintly from other Westland and Southland speech. “They’re called the Kewians,” she smiled.
“It sounds like a lovely place,” Anders said holding her gaze before awkwardly glancing down at his feet.
Together they gathered the scattered coins. Several of the town’s watchmen had seen the chase and were quick to put the thief in chains. Anders and Maija carried the money back to the registration tent while the watchmen hauled the thief away.
“So, it would be safe to assume you were about to come in and register for the games when that man ran into you?” Maija asked Anders.
“Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming,” he replied. “He was moving pretty fast, too. He should’ve signed up for the event instead of trying to steal the money. Probably would’ve done pretty well,” he joked.
“It looks like you got the best of him in the end, though,” Maija said. “Good thing you got lucky with that shovel handle.”
“Hang on,” Anders said. “That wasn’t just luck. I happen to be an excellent shovel handle thrower,” he smiled at her.
Back at the tent Anders was thanked and congratulated by the others working alongside Maija. He glanced over at Maija, who was staring at him, but looked away embarrassed when he noticed. After shaking the hands of Maija’s co-workers, Anders finally completed what he had come to do in the first place. He registered for the Grandwood Games. They told him to return in the morning to go over the rules before the competition began. He smiled brightly at Maija, who smiled back, before he left the registration tent.
After meeting up with his family, Anders told them what had happened.
“Anders, that’s amazing,” Kirsten said in admiration. “Maybe now you’ll have an advantage in the judges’ eyes.”
“It certainly won’t hurt,” said Thomas in a hopeful voice.
“Good job, Anders. No matter what happens tomorrow, I’m proud of you,” Theodor said as they climbed aboard the wagon to leave the Grandwood Festival.
He’d left out the part about meeting Maija, the beautiful Kewian girl who he now found himself thinking about.
The sun set over the horizon as the four of them rode up to their home above Highborn Bay. Anders and Thomas unloaded supplies from the wagon while Theodor went inside to start a fire. They warmed themselves by the fireplace as darkness fell, drinking warm tea and speculating how Anders would fare in the upcoming games. After placing several wagers among themselves, Anders wished everyone good night and went to sleep thinking about Maija’s beautiful brown eyes and enchanting smile.