The Flame in the Shadows
“In life, as in death, we should know what we are. But if the moment occurs when there is need, we should never be afraid to change what we know. That moment can be for a simple reason, a complicated one, or for no real reason at all.”
The boy looked down from the abandoned mill. His hair had grown long, the wild, flowing strands of crimson and snow now down to his chin. His knees were raw and red from scraping against wood, fence, and hard stone. They weren’t that bad. He was getting better. He hadn’t fractured a bone in months. The worst of it was his hands. They were ragged, bloody masses with the general form of fingers. He clenched and unclenched them slowly, wearing each sharp jab of pain like a badge. He put one of the digits in his mouth, trying to staunch the slow trickle. He winced and grinned. Soon the calluses would be thicker, would stop tearing. By then, he would be good enough that it wouldn’t matter.
He heard raised voices in the alley below. The buildings here were run-down yet fiercely cared for. Their owners took pride in them, even as gravity pulled them back into the dirt. Smoke drifted up from the congested buildings, rising into the setting sun. His eyes roved for the voices and a glint of red caught his eye. A small girl was running alone, trailed by a large group of teenagers.
Her practiced feet knew these potholed roads. She had a slender form and the long, black hair of a Rageborn, though she was far too small to be one of those. Her hair and size paired with her ragged tunic and bare, dirty feet, the boy instantly knew who she was. People said something was odd about her, but he didn’t know enough to be sure.
The girl was quick, confident in her steps, which for a child was impressive on these streets. It wasn’t enough. She bolted down a side alley and turned right into a dead end. The group fanned out behind her, trapping her in.
The boy sighed. Knowing well what it meant to be cornered and small, he made a snap decision he would never again understand.
He stood up, grabbing onto one of the windmill’s tattered blades. He looked left—eight-foot gap to the next building, sheer sides, and no path down. Even if he cleared that gap, he would be worse off. He looked below—old crates filled with empty flour sacks were stacked side by side a little way in front of the mill, rising eight or nine feet off the ground. Quickly, he formed a plan.
If he timed it right, he could lache from the old windmill down to the crates, roll from left shoulder to right hip, and leap easily to the streets below—easy as skipping.
Smothering a second guess, he leapt out to a lower rung, vertigo lurching in his stomach. He grabbed the rough wood with one hand but missed with the other. Swinging wildly, he tried to gain some footing, lost his grip, and fell. The impact sent splinters and billows of rancid flour in all directions. He lay there a moment, reconsidering several key life choices. Finally regaining the ability to breathe, he groaned and rolled off the mass of debris, fresh scratches accompanying the old.
He looked up the street toward the others. The teenagers had caught up to the girl. The boy watched as the six of them began their game. Their clothes were threadbare, but they at least had complete sets. Clearly, they were ready to rub that into the face of someone who didn’t.
“Look at the poor little rat,” a boy with a snout like a ferret sneered. “Paw roving where it shouldn’t be, and now caught in a trap.”
One of his pack sniggered. The girl looked down at the single bruised beet clutched in her fist, her prize. It was the glint the boy had seen, and likely her only prospect this week as far as eating was concerned.
The gang surrounded her, poking and prodding. The girl stood tall, eyes downcast yet still defiant. Ferret boy, confident and wiry, stepped forward. The leader.
“You gonna give it back, you little thief?” He shoved her hard before she could turn, and she fell to her knees. “Say something!” The others laughed.
“She can’t talk. She never talks. She’s an idiot,” a hard-eyed girl mocked.
“You never talk, aye? Surely you’ll talk to me?” Ferret-face continued, looming down over her. Before he could react, the girl lashed out, punching him squarely in the eye.
He howled and kicked her, as hard as he could.
She hugged her sides, sobbing on the ground, black hair smeared across reddened cheeks. The rest of them poked her with stubby toes, enjoying their game of cat now that they had a mouse.
The boy with torn hands had seen enough. All pain in his body forgotten, he sprinted right at them. He had no idea what he was going to do, but he’d figure it out when he got there.
The ferret rubbed his eye furiously. “She can’t talk, but let’s see if she can scream. Grab her hair, and we will see how loud she—hmph!”
The fist slammed into the Ferret’s kidney, and he toppled over the girl at his feet. The little boy kept swinging as he ran forward, and even though he had never thrown a punch in his life, he was learning fast. The first five or six went wide as he flailed, but the seventh caught the hard-eyed girl, his bone-bloody fist streaking across her chin. She squealed and fell back. The others were quickly recovering from their surprise, and a few feet away, the leader stirred.
The boy’s arms were already tiring, not that they were of much use in the first place. Time to go. He reached down, grabbed the little girl by the hand, smearing her with his blood and jerking her to her feet. She looked at him, confused.
“You don’t know me but run!”
He forced his way through a gap between bodies, dragging the little girl in his wake. He felt a sharp tug at his collar but shook it off. They broke free, sprinting hard down the darkening side streets, the others hot on their heels.
Open doorways flew by, showing brief glimpses of flickering candlelight and curious faces. He turned down an alley, damp walls pressing in on them. He squeezed her hand hard as he looked over his shoulder. Four were coming after them. The others must have fallen back.
The boy deliberated for half a second and went left, racing past overflowing bins and a couple of startled strays that scampered off at their coming.
He could hear cursing and threats from behind them. He pressed harder, running even faster. To his surprise, his new companion kept pace. Her breathing was as ragged as his but didn’t sound in danger of failing. Despite their current predicament, he felt a twinge of annoyance. No one should be as fast as he was.
He ran to the end of the street where it met the bank of the Belbury, a wide river dividing the poorer districts from the rest of Heartstone.
So far, fortune was favoring the left, so they streaked in that direction along the riverbank, the hooting pursuers closing in.
Before he’d gone ten feet, he slammed to a halt, the black-haired girl smashing into his back. It had been the wrong call. Somehow, two of the girls had found a shortcut, cutting them off. They were running down the lane, self-assured grins on their faces. The boy looked back the way they’d come. The others were coming hard. The wiry ferret, a visible limp in his step, led the fray.
The boy’s mind raced, trying to make a plan. Snap decisions were either of the best or worst kind, but sometimes he got lucky and they were a little bit of both.
He took off, sprinting headlong at the two coming up the alley, dragging his bemused companion along. He roared as he ran, snarling like a wild animal, anything to make them hesitate. He kept the corners of his eyes focused for a flash of light, an open door.
It sort of worked. The girls did hesitate, though more from laughter than fear.
He’d take it.
Less than ten feet from them, he saw it. He jerked hard on the girl’s hand, forcing her sideways, bursting into a completely foreign kitchen with mere seconds to spare.
“Good evening,” the boy said between breaths to a dumbstruck old woman, clearly in the middle of her dinner. There was a staircase at the back of the room. Not waiting for her reaction, they fled up the protesting steps two at a time into a bedroom with an old quilt over a broken bedstead. Across from the door was a window big enough to squeeze through.
They heard shouting from downstairs. The pursuers had invaded the house. The little boy launched himself over the bed, threw the window open, and climbed onto the sill. Turning around, his back to open air, he leapt, latching his fingers over the roof’s wooden shingles. He pulled himself up and flung his arms back over the ledge to help the little girl. She was still in the middle of the room, staring up at him, eyes like melons.
“Come on!” he shouted.
She shook herself from reverie and ran to the window. Her eyes grew even wider, but she didn’t argue. She clambered onto the sill, trembling all over. She looked down at the ground far below—a dead-end alley strewn with rubbish and dirt—then back up to the boy. She shook her head violently.
“Jump and climb, just like me!” he called down.
There was a slam at the back of the room. They were out of time. The older ruffians flooded in behind the girl. They whooped, closing the gap in seconds. She turned and jumped, thrusting her arms high. The boy caught them both as several hands shot out, scrabbling at her ankles. The boy wrenched her up and away from the edge. They collapsed, chests thundering. The sound of cracking shingles jerked them back up. A sneering face appeared behind them. The ferret.
“Got you. Gonna make you pay for that punch, Fleetfoot. And here was me thinking you lot were supposed to be lucky.”
The boy didn’t know what to do, could only stare in horror. Something slammed past him. The little girl. Planting both hands wide like support beams, she flung her legs between like a human trebuchet. Her bare feet slammed into the leader’s chest, blasting him from the rooftop.
Screams leading him on, the boy ran to the edge to peer down. Two stories below, the ferret whimpered and writhed in garbage.
The boy turned slack-jawed back to the girl. She shook with a fury without words, and for a moment he was terrified of her. She raised her arm. The beet, now considerably more woebegone, was still clutched in her fist.
“All that for a beet?” Valeo barked.
She smiled, took a bite, and pelted the rest down at the ferret.
She took Valeo’s hand once more, and they took off into the waning sunlight, jumping from house to house, shouts and curses trailing them into the darkness. When they could be sure all pursuit had been shaken, the boy flopped down, gasping for air. He had time for only a few breaths before something sharp prodded his ribs. The girl stared down at him, a look of confused defiance on her face.
“What?” he said.
Why? she mouthed, not a sound escaping her lips.
“Why what?” He sat up. “Why help you?”
She nodded. He paused a moment, trying to understand why himself.
“Because you were trapped but still stood your ground,” he said. “That takes a very special kind of stupid,” he added with a smile.
She blinked. Her face fell into her hands and silent sobs began wracking her body. The little boy, feeling something akin to guilt, sat up and tried patting her back. He never saw the fist, just felt it driving into his gut. He toppled over, grappling for breath. When he looked up, she was smiling, her eyes quite dry.
“Where’d that come from?” he gasped, clutching his stomach. “Could’ve used it back there.” He coughed. “Though . . . it was under control.”
She raised an eyebrow and pointed a tiny finger down at him, then flailed about as if on fire.
“Did not look like that!” he argued, aghast. “My punches were more . . . regal.” He wasn’t sure what the word meant, but it tasted appropriate.
She laughed. It was the tinkling sound of chimes on a summer breeze. Her face grew serious. She pointed at him as he stood up, pointed back to herself, and then mimed running and jumping.
“Umm . . . what are you doing?” he asked, brushing off his bloody knees.
She mimed it again, looking agitated.
“Trying to tell me something, right?” He snickered, still a little unsure. “Did you like the way we ran away?”
She nodded quickly, breaking into a smile. She stood next to him, moved her hand back and forth between. Finger at him, finger at herself, then running and jumping in place.
“You. Me. Together.” Jubilant head nods. “More. Running. Together . . .” He paused for a moment, thinking out loud. “You want me to teach you how to run?”
She clapped her hands, obviously thrilled he’d figured it out.
He thought about it a moment. “Guess we could do that.” He paused, and his features got serious. He put his hand on her shoulder. “But one thing, first.” She looked at him, nodding. “We gotta come up with an easier way to talk . . . or get you pen and paper . . . or something.”
She smiled and punched him again. He lurched over, which was a good thing, or else she would have seen he was smiling, too.
The girl got his attention, pointing into the alley below, then to the next series of buildings which were higher still, seeming to ask, “Low or high?”
Valeo grinned. “As high as our feet will take us.”
Together, they tore off into the night.
The day he’d met Breeze.
Wind rushed and wailed around Valeo. Hot sunlight pressed down against his eyelids, turning them a flowing shade of rose. Whatever he lay against was rising and falling smoothly, like water lapping along a shoreline.
There was a sudden swoop, and his stomach shuddered violently. He fell for half an instant, felt a flash of pain as he hit wood, and heard his sick splattering.
“Is that the Fleetfoot? How did he get here?” Valeo felt strong hands scrabbling at his shirt.
More people were touching him now, tugging him into a sitting position.
“Did you see where he came from? Did anyone?”
“Damn! I stepped in his puke.”
“Never mind that. Get Logan. Now! Oh Fayt, I’m sorry kid, this is really gonna hurt.”
Something scalding pressed against the cut on his back. Valeo screamed, eyes flashing open wide. With a final glimpse of ridiculous boots, he fainted.
Darkness held him for a time as he drifted back and forth between surface and oblivion. Sometimes he heard voices but didn’t care. Other times, he felt hands upon him.
Good for them.
On occasion, a massive, gruff woman shook him awake to push roughly on his ribs, poke and prod his wounds, and force liquid into his mouth that made his lungs burn. That at least had to be real; a dream could never be so unpleasant. Mostly he felt the embrace of deep, motionless sleep. It was what he wanted most, and he took it.
When Valeo at last truly awoke, he was incredibly comfortable. He lay there for a long time, enjoying the peace. Eventually, he let his eyes creep open. There was a firm pressure around his chest. Looking down, he saw bandages woven across his ribs. A guttering candle stood on a table nearby, giving him enough light to see through the shadows.
He hadn’t the slightest idea where he was. Books lay scattered everywhere: Big, ornamental ones; small, pocket-size ones; peeling books that looked as if they’d been read a hundred times; and stiff, shining ones that looked as if they had never been opened. Some were placed carefully on shelves or stacked neatly on the floor, and some were carelessly tossed around. Whoever lived here had an unhealthy fixation on the written word, or else Valeo was bed-crashing a soon-to-be livid librarian.
Strewn between the books across the room were strange devices straight from his grandfather’s old sailing stories—a table-size compass, a tarnished telescope, and a broken star globe were the first to catch his eye—all well past the age of obsolete.
An ancient map of Sora took up most of the wall on his right. It was more detailed than any map had a right to be, with handwritten notes and alterations etched across nearly every inch. He lost himself in the world before him then, mouth slightly open. Either he had always taken it for granted, or perhaps he had just never really grasped how big it really was. But his attention soon ebbed, and he looked elsewhere.
His new bed was enormous, at least three body rolls in either direction to the edge. Wooden posts extended to the ceiling from each corner. He peered up, craning to look behind him. A window covered the entire back wall of the room, a mass of wrought iron and glass. Night sky lay beyond, dark clouds silently drifting by. He settled back into the plump fabric and tried to relax.
Where in the world?
A voice spoke from the darkest corner of the room, answering the silent question.
“I see you have settled into my bed nicely.”
Valeo shot up, pain flaring through his skull and chest, forcing him to lay back. His eyes roved the darkness as he tried to keep his head still.
“A captain, while being best known for prowess at the helm, still needs rest.” The voice came again from the shadows. A man stepped into the flickering light and crossed his arms. It was Drake.
“Forgive me my candor. Though fully at your disposal for the time being, I must ask you not to get too attached to it,” Drake said, smiling. “A person can make a bed, but the bed more often than naught makes the person.” His accent was strange, antiquated like old silver. There was an eloquence and harmony that Valeo had never heard. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t noticed it before. But, then again, it was easier to pick up things like accents without the sound of giant wings buffeting your brain.
“Is that so?” Valeo replied, matching Drake’s smile.
“Oh yes. Captains find it most difficult to plunder, pillage, bark orders, and maintain surly tempers if they have not had proper rest. I am no exception. I would even venture to say it is responsible for my rise to captaincy.” He winked, approached the bed with a casual loping grace, and sat down in a plush chair beside it.
Valeo snorted but stifled it quickly. His ribs were agony. “But if the bed’s only for captains”—he winced, holding his chest—“how could it be the reason you got promoted?”
“Motivation takes many forms, and the promise of such a bed was all the motivation I needed.” Drake bowed deeply, a slight twitch edging the corner of his mouth.
Valeo tried not to laugh. “Will be sure to take full advantage, then.” He sank his head deeper still into the pillows.
“Glad to hear it. Now,” Drake said, crossing his legs, “we are a bit more comfortable than first we met, so allow me to introduce myself properly.” He stood up. “Captain Nathaniel R. H. Drake of the Jolly Judy.” He bowed in a sweeping flourish, eyes twinkling with sincere amusement, and held out his hand.
Valeo took it with some effort. “Valeo Dominic Sorte of small stories and smaller means.”
Drake’s hand was as rough as any carpenter’s. That was surprising. Valeo thought a captain’s hands would be smoother.
Valeo shifted his legs. “Would posing a serious question be all right?”
“By all means,” Drake said, nodding.
“. . . Where are my pants?”
Drake chuckled. “Forgive me, I have no idea. It was not I who removed them. I would wager they are somewhere nearby, however.”
“Let’s hope so.”
“Planning a dashing escape?” Drake asked. “Or are you simply more modest than previously imagined?”
“Oh, not worried for myself,” Valeo said seriously. “More for you and everyone else aboard. Legs are extremely pale, see? No one should be subjected to them.”
“Bright as snow?” Drake said, playing along.
“Albino snow, really,” agreed Valeo, nodding. “Only redeeming quality is their glow. Use them to look for things. Like my pants.”
Drake laughed again. “Then I shall soon leave you to discover them under the cover of darkness.”
Valeo nodded and joined in the laughing.
They both fell quiet for a time, the candle the only thing to break the silence. Valeo used the time to study Drake’s face. It was carved from stories, there was no doubting it. His high, rigid cheekbones, his sharp eyes with small crinkles at the edges—probably from grinning—all spoke tales. If only Valeo could hear them. Drake had a thin and jagged scar on his right cheek and was pale himself in the candlelight.
Eventually Valeo’s thoughts turned dour as the memories returned. When he spoke, his tone was dark despite a brave stab at his usual carefree air.
“Fell, huh?” The words came out in a single, stinging exhale.
Drake paused before answering, as if the words weighed something. “Yes.”
Valeo slowly nodded.
“Not dead, though. How come?”
“A heroic tale, to be sure,” murmured Drake. “Alas, it’s not mine to tell. We, all those aboard, I mean, have no idea.”
“You have no idea?” Valeo repeated, confused.
“None at all. One minute, the deck’s clear; the next, there you are, along with the contents of your stomach. I was hoping you could tell me.”
Valeo shook his head. “Don’t really know.” His memories were hazy. Mashing his eyes together, he only had glimpses of molten sky and flashes of pain. All those images were superseded by the incredible weight of loss.
“Mystery for another day, then.”
“Failed.” The word on his mind escaped through Valeo’s gritted teeth.
“I take it failure is not something you often contend with?”
Valeo glanced toward Drake, who had his hands folded in front of his mouth as he scrutinized the boy in his bed.
“No.” Valeo admitted grudgingly. He searched around quickly for a change of subject. He raised his arms and looked over his body. “So what’s the damage?”
“Nothing too severe, considering. A few bruised ribs, nasty cuts across your chest, and a gash across your back. Nothing some weeks’ rest won’t put right. For the time being, it would be most unwise to move around too much. Is that agreeable?”
Valeo nodded, fighting the urge to roll his eyes.
“I have a question for you, if I may?” Drake said, sounding half-amused, half-curious.
“Fire away.” Valeo stared up at the clouds through the window.
“Why what?” Valeo replied, looking back at the captain, knowing exactly what Drake meant.
“Why did you really do it?”
“If you knew the truth, you would only think me the king of fools.” Valeo felt a twinge in his stomach. He bit his lip and turned away, not meeting Drake’s piercing gaze.
“I would like to believe I would do no such thing, but squeezing a fish only helps it slip away.” Drake sighed, and Valeo had the strangest feeling he had somehow let the captain down.
“Safe to say, a bit had to do with the dream and wishes of a long-lost father,” Valeo clarified, somewhat reluctantly.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Drake murmured. “Given to sky?”
Valeo shook his head. “Not dead, as far as we know.” The last few syllables waivered, his words shaken with the fierce longing he dared not express aloud.
“In any case,” Drake continued, taking his tactful cue, “it seems that Cespin and Alistair owe me some money.”
“Who?” Valeo asked, bemused.
“Two of my crew who bet you wouldn’t do it,” Drake explained. “Incidentally, Cespin is the one who found you first.”
“Well, glad he spots better than he gambles,” Valeo said. Again, he felt a flicker of guilt.
Drake didn’t seem to notice. “Well, even a Fleetfoot’s luck isn’t foolproof, and you bent yours as far as it would go, damn near broke it in half.” A chuckle crept into the last few words.
Valeo smiled in spite of himself, but it quickly became a frown. “How did you know I was a Fleetfoot?”
Drake snorted, looking at Valeo’s head pointedly.
“Could’ve dyed it this way; loads of people do,” Valeo explained, and it was perfectly true. The vogue of being one of the lucky had never quite faded, at least not in Valeo’s lifetime.
Drake smiled. “Only a true Fleetfoot would do something so foolish and think he had enough luck to pull him through. And yet . . . you are only half, are you not?”
“Yup, and the other half was begging me to stop,” Valeo answered, his eyes sparkling. “But let’s not forget, it only got deadly when you cut my safety line.”
“It was deadly enough before that. I just . . . helped things along,” Drake added.
“Was there a particular reason?” Valeo’s words were a bit petulant. “Trying to get me killed, or had it just been a dull morning?” He propped himself up, the motion only causing mild discomfort now.
Drake stood up. “No, my morning had been quite edgy—a desire for ground coffee, and the daily duel against a razor and my mother’s wish for a clean-shaven son.” He rubbed coyly at the hair on his face. “Despite her wishes, or in spite of them I should say, I won.” He seemed lighthearted, but underlying it was a more complex emotion that Valeo could not make out.
“But to answer your question more fully,” the captain continued, walking toward the knobbly table and picking up the stubby candleholder, “I had a very good reason.”
“What was it?”
“As I told you on deck, you were not going to succeed if you knew failure was an option.”
“But didn’t make it—”
“But neither did you die,” Drake said, cutting across him. “That may not seem like much now, because you did not accomplish what you set out to do, but it is.” He tore his eyes away from the candle and turned to Valeo. “When faced with death, we sometimes forget our hope for life is what makes the difference.”
Valeo scoffed. “Never even considered death to be honest. Not really.” It was perfectly true. The dream of his father, his words, had Valeo convinced of life with nothing less than certainty.
“Not until I cut the rope, you mean.” Drake jerked a finger in his direction. “You considered it then.”
“Well, yeah,” stuttered Valeo. “You’d screwed up my only bloody—”
Drake cut across him again, his words rushed and excited. “And once you had considered death, faced your own flickering torch of existence”—he gestured toward the candle in his hand—“did you consider backing down?” Drake was rooted to the spot, waiting for a reply.
Valeo thought about it. Had he been afraid to die? As if it may actually have happened? He wracked his brains, trying to remember. The silence stretched on. When he finally made up his mind, Valeo was sure.
“No. Not once. Was gonna do it, rope or not.”
“Exactly!” Drake broke into a wide grin, waving a knowing finger at Valeo, and looked back at the candle.
“Often we forget the duality of the flame,” his smile fell as he spoke. “On one hand, it has the power of life, to keep us alive, to cook our food, to light our path. Yet, it also has the power to turn that food to ash, destroy every step at our feet, and will greedily devour flesh if given half a chance.” He spoke grimly, solemn grey eyes still fixated on the candle. “Why do we, as human beings, put so much faith into something that gives life, but just as easily consumes it?”
Valeo, taken aback by the sudden change in Drake’s demeanor, took a moment to come up with an answer. “Because a flame won’t burn you unless you let it.”
“Well-reasoned,” said Drake approvingly. “Good to see you have learned something.” With much effort, Drake seemed to pull himself back to the present. When he spoke again, it was in a much lighter tone. “Restrict a flame too much”—he wrapped a long hand around the wick, and the orange glow gasped and dimmed between his fingers—“the flame chokes and dies as sure as snuffed. The trick is to provide enough wind so the fire will grow, spread, burn brightly”—Drake continued, releasing his hand so the little light sputtered back to life—“but guide the flame as best we can so it doesn’t consume.”
“We aren’t talking about a candle anymore, are we?” Valeo asked, trying and failing to relieve the tension.
“No more than we are speaking of a man who surely faced death but still somehow found life . . . and burned all the brighter.” Drake’s words lingered over the wandering light.
“Any brighter and he would have burned the ship down,” Valeo said, winking.
They looked at each other, both trying not to smirk, then the tension burst. Before either of them could help it, they were roaring with laughter. Valeo’s ribs shrieked in protest, but he didn’t care. That is where they sat, laughing at something that neither really understood.
“Well, I may have gotten slightly carried away, truth be told,” Drake finally said, wiping the corners of his crinkled eyes. “But you learned something very important nonetheless.”
“Which is what? Given all the luck in the world, a Fleetfoot still can’t fly?”
“Something much more valuable, I think.” The captain’s gaze became unreadable as he considered his words. “You faced death and found life. You tempted fate and decided you could follow your own feet despite fate. I can only hazard a guess at so many uncertainties in this world, but today I found one thing to be sure of: the flame you keep will preserve you against all odds, but it’s also going to be the thing that destroys you.” As Drake spoke, he grew more solemn, looking grim yet strangely elated. “As I leave you to return to your dreams, remember this: no matter how impossibly vast and seemingly unquenchable the blaze, every raging inferno . . . every feeble flame . . . eventually”— he held the candle up to his mouth—“burns out.”
The room went dark. Before his eyes could adjust to the sudden change, Valeo heard the doors open and close, leaving him quite alone, his mind whirling.