A mist liked to hang over the river in the early morning, cloaking the willow trees and masking them in silhouette. Dewdrops clung to the ferns and the underbrush, gleaming in the dawn light and dripping quietly into the river. That brought the fish, big and silver, rising from the bottom in search of the insects that skimmed over the water.
This was Leonardo’s favourite time. The sun turned the mist gold, the air was fresh and humid, and everything still hung in the sleepy, untouched state of the night. It was as if the forest were just waking, and the shadows didn’t watch him as closely as they did during the day.
Leonardo rested a hand on the edge of the boat, the weathered wood damp and spongy where dew had soaked into the raw splinters. From afar the boat looked graceful; slim and fluted at the bow where he sat, with a tall bowsprit and tail stem like a Viking longboat. Up close it was a tired old creature, ancient and battered with scars on the boards and algae stains where the river sloshed against the prow.
It slipped through the morning with quiet purpose, the only sound the rhythmic clunk-splash of its eight oars, churning in perfect timing under young but practiced hands.
Two boys behind him broke the stillness.
“Yes, Moth?” said Pinch flatly.
Leonardo closed his eyes.
“Are you trying to lose a hand?” demanded Moth, his breath short between oar strokes.
“There are crocs in there.”
“Crocs eat hands.”
“Moth,” said Leonardo, glancing back. Leave it alone. For once.
Moth twisted to see him, a leaf trapped in his curly hair and his clothes skewed and rumpled. The rowers faced backwards on their benches, so making eye contact was an awkward feat to begin with, doubled by the fact that it was Moth attempting it.
“But—” it’s dangerous, Moth’s eyes said.
Leonardo raised an eyebrow. And pointing that out will make him stop?
Moth sighed and, for a moment, Leonardo actually thought he would drop it. The other boys down the length of the boat glanced at them cautiously, afraid to jinx it.
Then Pinch made a noise, annoyed that the squabble was dying, and Moth twisted back around to glare at him. Pinch wasn’t a rower, and his hand still dangled overboard, daring a challenge. He formed the perfect opposite of Moth; sharp-edged and wiry in a black tee-shirt and combat boots, a tricorn hat sitting cockeyed atop his head. His eyes flashed with dark delight, long fingers stirring the water as it streamed past.
“Name one person you know who’s had a croc eat their hand,” said Pinch.
“Loads of people!” said Moth.
Leonardo sighed, turning forward again. He actually had a job to do, and it didn’t involve babysitting his two friends.
“Like who?” said Pinch.
“Guys,” said Leonardo. Their bickering made it impossible to concentrate.
“Get your hand out of the water,” said Moth.
“No,” said Pinch.
“Because I’m busy.”
Leonardo sighed. “Please don’t ask.”
“Doing what?” demanded Moth.
“Trying to catch a fish, stupid.”
“And that’s why you never ask,” said Leonardo. Once, he’d found Pinch with a shirt-full of blackberries, placing them in a long line along the forest floor. When questioned, Pinch explained that he was attempting to catch a bear.
Life was simpler if you didn’t ask.
“With your fingernail?” asked Moth.
“Fish are dumb,” said Pinch. “They’ll think it’s a bug.”
“No they won’t.”
“That doesn’t even…” Moth stopped. “Ohmygod, is that a croc?”
Leonardo glanced back, following Moth’s gaze to the shallows near the riverbank. A dark shape drifted, half submerged. He squinted through the mist, on high alert. The boat sat low in the water, and while the sides came up just high enough to keep out a croc, the presence of the monsters still put everyone on edge.
“No,” said Pinch.
“Yes it is!” said Moth. “Leo, look, it’s—”
“A log,” said Leonardo.
“Are you sure?”
“Moth, my zone is forward.” Leonardo peered over his shoulder and turned to the bow again. Aleksander had just appointed him point watchman, responsible for being the first eyes on any dangers ahead. He didn’t want to be caught neglecting that duty. And crocodiles weren’t the only threat on this river. The others were a lot smarter. And they carried weapons.
“Yeah,” Pinch said to Moth. “And butt out of my zone.”
“You’re not even looking,” said Moth.
“I don’t have to,” said Pinch. “I’m that good.”
“Wait.” Moth’s danger voice was back. “It’s moving.”
“There’s a current,” said Pinch.
“Youknowwhat,” said Moth. “If it eats your hand, don’t come crying back to me.”
Leonardo groaned. “Moth…”
For all that he considered Moth his closest friend, the other boy’s plucky stubbornness could be exhausting.
“Why would I come crying to you?” said Pinch.
Leonardo sighed. And Pinch was even worse—give him a stick and he’d start poking everything in sight.
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Moth.
“Crocs eat people, Pinch.”
“Now it’s whole people? I thought they just ate hands.”
Someone groaned behind Leonardo. He glanced back as Jack and Will exchanged looks. Pinch still sprawled on his bench, hand dangling overboard. Conflict was a game to him, and annoying the rest of them just added to the fun.
It was an innocent kind of obnoxiousness, thought Leonardo. A way to function in a world that never fully understood him.
“Ohmygod, it’s coming towards us,” said Moth.
“It’s. A. Log,” said Pinch.
“You haven’t even looked.”
Aleksander is not going to like this. Leonardo felt his eyes on them from the back of the boat. His annoyance was like a laser-beam.
Leonardo opened his mouth to affirm that it was, in fact, a log, and end the squabble for good, but Pinch spoke first, twisting violently—supposedly to see the log—and making the boat rock.
“There,” he snapped. “I looked. It’s a log.”
“It has leaves on it, for crying out loud.”
“God you’re a halfwit,” said Pinch.
Here we go.
“At least I’m a halfwit with two hands,” said Moth.
“How many hands do you see?”
“Well, I see two middle fingers,” said Moth.
“Oh, so you’re not blind.”
“Moth. Pinch. Cork it,” Aleksander’s voice came from the back of the boat, snapping everyone to attention. He stood atop the narrow bench that filled the tapered point of the stern. He called it the captain’s platform, with more prestige than the rotting boards ever deserved.
Moth and Pinch fell silent. Leonardo tensed, along with every other boy in the boat.
“One day,” said Aleksander, his tone sending a chill up Leonardo’s spine, “the two of you will wake up and realize your tongues are gone.”
Leonardo twisted to look at him, standing atop the bench. Aleksander’s face remained perfectly calm despite the absurdity coming out of his mouth.
He’s insane, thought Leonardo. It wasn’t the first time he’d had the thought.
Pinch didn’t miss a beat. “And what will you do with them?”
“Feed them to the crocs.”
Someone laughed, then suddenly broke off. Aleksander had a precisely honed shut up face that could quiet even the most un-shut-up-able boys in the boat. Leonardo didn’t have to turn around to know that the shut up face had made an appearance.
Aleksander didn’t joke. He said absurd things on occasion, and his threats were in equal parts horrifying and ridiculous, but no one ever laughed. Laughter meant those threats quickly became less ridiculous and a lot more horrifying. Aleksander’s fragile temper was infamous throughout the woods.
Pinch didn’t push it further. Even he knew better than that.
Moth’s knuckles grew white in Leonardo’s peripheral, his oar slipping out of rhythm.
“Moth, your oar,” said Leonardo under his breath. Aleksander wouldn’t put up with a rogue oar for more than a strokeand a half.
“Eyes ahead, point-watch,” snapped Aleksander. “You want to row?”
“No sir.” Leonardo turned to look over the bow again. Aleksander said something about incompetency under his breath, only audible because the rest of the boat stayed deathly silent. Still, Leonardo always felt like those comments were intended to be heard.
Aleksander didn’t say anything else—that he could hear—and neither did any of the boys rowing. They knew better than to call attention to themselves when Aleksander got like this. They just did their duty and hoped to finish the patrol unscathed. Leonardo did the same, leaning on the edge of the bow and fixing his gaze out over the river.
Point watchman was the highest rank below captain in the narrow boat. He’d been the left watchman until the old point-watch went missing, two days earlier. Aleksander gave him the promotion an hour after Davy’s disappearance, and no one had said a word about it since.
There was no point pretending Davy would come back. Enough boys vanished in these woods that they had stopped searching for them. Leonardo shifted self-consciously on Davy’s bench, glancing at the shadows between the trees. A pair of eyes watched him back, an owl in a hollow, half-hidden through the mist. The big yellow eyes followed them as the boat glided past, and a soft hoot carried over the slosh of oars.
Leonardo shuddered and looked away. The birds in these woods creeped him out. They were too knowing, too attentive. Ridiculous as it sounded, he felt like the owl was trying to judge which of them the woods would claim next. Davy wasn’t the first to disappear, and Leonardo doubted he’d be the last. All Leonardo could do was fill his position and try not to draw attention to himself.
As the new Davy, he scanned the water and riverbanks ahead for crocodiles, floating debris, and most importantly, rival members from the other clans of boys that lived along the river. In these woods, attacks were as common as disappearances.
Hence the necessity of this patrol; every morning, every evening, and anywhere from two to eight times in between, depending on how paranoid Aleksander felt that day. Clan territories were serious business and protecting borders even more so.
Pinch held the position of right-side-watchman, and a boy named Jack had taken over Leonardo’s job on the left. Their good eyesight and perceptiveness had earned them the jobs, and while rowers like Moth might envy them, being a watchman on the main patrol was far from the high life.
More like an endless reel of scrutiny and criticism, under the piercing gaze from the captain’s platform.
“Point-watch,” snapped Aleksander, yanking Leonardo out of his thoughts.
“Sir,” said Leonardo.
“What’s that on the left bank? Forty yards ahead.”
The real question was, why haven’t you reported it yet.
Leonardo answered without looking. “A black swan. Two actually.”
He’d noticed them ten seconds earlier. No threat, and no one wanted to eat swan. Nothing to report.
Aleksander didn’t respond. Most likely, he was already looking for something else that Leonardo might’ve missed.
Leonardo rolled his eyes. Aleksander had no idea how hard he worked, how he’d memorized every twist in the riverbank and studied every game trail and dry ravine in the woods until he could walk them blind. He’d done it all in a fruitless attempt to meet Aleksander’s demands, but the bar seemed to float higher every time he came close to reaching it.
They rounded a bend in the river and Leonardo snapped back to duty.
“Tree cliffs,” he called over his shoulder.
A pair of giant pines stood atop sheer rock walls, shaded green with moss and climbing vines. The river cleaved through the middle of it, running down from Hawk Clan’s territory on the far side. The morning mist still hung heavy here, silhouetting strange shapes in the passage.
“Hold. Oars in,” called Aleksander.
The oars clattered in their locks and the boat glided to a drift. Someone behind Leonardo gave a raven call, picked up by a few of the other boys. Leonardo stayed silent. Aleksander permitted this from the rowers, but his watchmen were expected to hold a higher standard. Stoicism earned respect, and if one thing was certain, it was that Raven Clan was to be respected.
The calls quieted down—even the rowers knew the length of their leashes—and a hawk cry sounded out through the mist. His eyes flicked to the sky, as always, unable to fully understand how that was a human-made sound. Then the prow of another boat appeared between the cliffs, a carved hawk staring out from atop the bowsprit.
“Hawk boat,” he said, and glanced up at the raven carving above him, staring back at the Hawk boat with wooden-eyed intensity.
“Stay sharp,” said Aleksander.
Tension ran up and down the ranks of Ravens. Every boy in the boat had fallen silent, and Leonardo knew their eyes were locked on their Hawk counterparts.
Leonardo scanned the clifftops. It was his responsibility to spot anyone up there planning an ambush. Slingshots could inflict a lot of damage from that height.
“Greetings, Hawk Clan,” called Aleksander.
“Aleksander,” a voice came from the mist-shrouded stern of the other boat, smug and self-important.
They glided between the cliffs and Aleksander used the rudder to bring them alongside. Hawk boys and Raven Clan boys grabbed hold, pulling the boats together. They clanked and came to rest, rocking in the water.
Leonardo cast a sidelong glance. Hawk Clan’s leader, a boy considerably younger than Aleksander, stood on his own captain’s platform a few feet to Leonardo’s left, pudgy arms crossed and head tilted, a smirk between his apple cheeks. Leonardo watched him in the corner of his eye. If Aleksander saw him take his eyes off the clifftops for even a moment, he’d have Leonardo’s head.
“Gallus,” said Aleksander.
Gallus thought about it. “One of my patrols saw something…oh, which stream was it down? Can’t remember. At the other end of our territory, anyhoo. Might’ve been one of the clans from up in the hills.” He shrugged. “Didn’t get a clear look.”
Aleksander didn’t respond right away. When he did, it was through a thin layer of patience. “So someone saw something somewhere that might’ve been someone.”
Aleksander didn’t reply.
“News on your end?” prompted Gallus.
“Fox Clan still refuses to make contact. A patrol saw a boat yesterday, but they retreated immediately.”
Gallus made his lips like a duckbill while Aleksander spoke. Now he shrugged, a lock of moppy hair falling across his eyes.
“Foxes are halfwits. Here’s my advice: ignore the shit out of them. Trust me, you’ll be thanking me later.”
“And why would I do that?” asked Aleksander.
“The stress! Listen to yourself, man. Fox this, Fox that.
All they do is sit in their hole, eating blackberries and getting fat. Trust me, stop stressing about them and you’ll forget they’re even there.”
“You underestimate them.”
“Then you’re a fool.”
“Listen man, just trying to give you some advice.” Gallus tapped his head. “Wisdom from the melon. Ignore it if you want. They’re your neighbours, not mine.”
“If your advice involves my clan dropping its guard, then do me a favour and keep it to yourself.”
Gallus smiled his smug, apple-cheeked smile. “Careful now, don’t want to go making enemies.”
“I’ve made and defeated three enemies for every year you’ve been in these woods. Several of them have stood on the exact bench you’re standing on right now.”
Gallus smiled wider. “Lorenzo talked about you, back before he disappeared. I learned to swear, listening to him talk about you.”
“I imagine you did.”
“Oh yes. He called you—”
“I defeated him four…or was it five? Yes right, it was eight times. Eight battles, and Lorenzo lost them all.”
Gallus waited for Aleksander to finish, then he tapped his head. “He didn’t have the melon.”
Aleksander paused and Gallus smiled, intentionally fake and strangely unsettling.
“We should be going,” said Aleksander.
“Gotta go check that Fox border?”
“Among other things.”
“You’re not trying to find a way out are you?”
“There’s no way out,” said Aleksander. “You know that.”
“Of course,” said Gallus. “Adios.”
“Oars down,” called Aleksander, and the rowers swung into motion.
A strong magic pervaded the woods, and once a boy found himself trapped in it, he could walk for days without ever finding an end to the trees. Leonardo used to believe there was a way out, but over the years he’d come to realize the same truth as everyone else — only the woods chose who came and went.