Radyn inched open his eyes. Above, the sky was dark, the stars white and innumerable. Wisps of cloud drifted lazily below. He lay there for a moment, sprawled on the caravan roof listening to the sounds of the great forest, wondering what had awoken him.
Then, as consciousness dawned, he became aware of a familiar tightness in his bladder. That was quickly followed by the awareness that his chosen sleeping place was somewhat lumpier than usual. Radyn grimaced. Lifting his hips, he pulled the half-empty bottle out from under him and slumped back to the canvas.
The discovery prompted a sudden rush of images from the evening’s celebrations. His brow knotted, then relaxed. Nothing too embarrassing, which was good. Unlike that time in Wissleshire… It had taken him weeks to live that one down. He figured it was one of the hazards of being the youngest in a travelling carnival.
Voices floated to him from the camp below. It seemed not everyone had retired. Radyn frowned and listened more intently, then winced. Uric. Radyn recognised his foster father’s gravelly chuckle immediately.
He lifted his head just high enough to peek over the caravan’s sideboards. The convoy had set up for the night in a place where the forest road widened into a clearing. No two caravans were the same size or shape, making an odd silhouette in the blue moonlight.
A campfire still glowed in the convoy’s centre. Uric and Baergin the warrior sat around the dwindling flames, along with two of the mercenaries, Monjo the illusionist, and the company fire tamer Skyg the grodgolyte.
Uric was holding court as usual. Radyn could see his foster father’s pipe smoke chugging skyward between his words. Radyn suspected that was what Uric enjoyed most about being leader of the company: people felt obliged to listen to his stories.
Watching them, Radyn felt a pang of regret. He used to love to sit around the campfire with Uric and the fighters. Although lately it seemed Radyn couldn’t even look at his foster father without an argument erupting. If he got the chance, Radyn pledged to catch up with Uric tomorrow. Just one good chat to end the tour on a happy note.
But first, Radyn’s bladder was growing more insistent. If he could attend to that without waking too fully, he should be able to get back to sleep quickly. He could already feel the brooding tingle of the headache that would greet him come morning. Radyn planned to slumber through the worst of it.
He checked the night sky. Onari, the pale blue moon, was round, but not quite full, floating just above the treetops. Volorus, the larger, silver moon, had already set. He guessed it was about three hours after midnight. Plenty of time to sleep off a hangover.
Radyn hoisted himself up onto his haunches, gripping the sideboard against a sudden wave of nausea. He took a breath, let the dizziness pass, and vaulted over the caravan’s side, landing in a crouch between the carriages and the tree line.
The Rolwood Forest was a muddle of shadows. Radyn peered sleepily into the tangle of roots, shrubs, and gloom that lurked between the trunks, choosing his path. A moment later he was stomping through the foliage, the forest’s little creatures chattering about him. After a few more steps he caught the sound of water, and pushed through the trees to find himself on the bank of a lake.
Radyn frowned at the lake and then back towards the camp. He didn’t remember a lake being this close… Its velvet-smooth waters were a mirror of the starry heavens, the blue moon rippling across its surface. The forest hugged the shore on every bank.
Somewhere near the opposite shore a large rock was jutting out from the water. Radyn let out a yawn and squinted. It was hard to make out from this distance, but he thought he recognised the rock’s distinctive silhouette.
Old Man Boulder. Yes, he was sure of it. The only problem was, Old Man Boulder jutted out of Tibble Lake—a lake that lay almost a day’s ride from here, only a couple of hours from Devonridge. Radyn squinted with a little more effort and took a step closer.
Straight into the icy water. He jerked his soaking foot back with a gasp. The lake’s chilly waters seeped through his boot, shooting up his leg and straight into his mind, instantly banishing any hope of sleep.
Clear and thorough wakefulness. Radyn could almost hear his looming headache laughing. Only then did he notice he was still holding the half-finished bottle of spirits.
Well, there’s more than one way to beat a hangover, he thought dryly and, placing the bottle on the bank, made clear his disdain for the lake by relieving himself into its waters.
Radyn rebuckled his pants and picked up the bottle, found a decent-sized rock on the shoreline, and sat on it. He stared down at his soaking boot. Radyn groaned. He had fallen asleep in his stage clothes again—or costumes as Uric was fond of correcting. Silly puffy-sleeved things. It was little wonder the girls Radyn spoke to spent most of the conversation giggling behind their hands.
The serious girls, as Radyn thought of them, always seemed more interested in Dace the bard, or Baergin’s muscled mercenaries. Radyn was lean, but he wasn’t well-built like the fighters. He wasn’t short, but he wasn’t exactly tall either.
Radyn scooped up a pebble from the shore and skimmed it across the water, rippling the stars’ reflection. What he really wanted were some friends his own age, especially now he was old enough to enter a tavern—in most parts of the Circle of Kingdoms anyway. The trouble was the company never stayed in one place long enough to get to know anybody. They just visited town after town, year after year, performing the same old shows to the same old people.
Radyn sighed out over the moonlit lake, watching the trees on the shore sway in the night. He was about to take a swig from his bottle when he shivered, feeling the tingle of eyes upon him. He turned to find Grol the burveeg sitting on the bank a few feet away.
“What are you doing here?” Radyn asked. “You should be guarding the camp.”
Grol just sat there on his broad and furry rump, his wide snout open, his tongue lolling happily.
Radyn grinned as he gleaned the burveeg’s intention, which, Radyn supposed, wasn’t entirely unreasonable given that he was sitting by a lake.
“I’m not fishing,” he told the animal. “I don’t have any other food either.”
At the pronouncement, Grol closed his snout and tilted his thick head. His black eyes moved down to Radyn’s hip and back up again.
Radyn sighed, pulled the sweet jebbit-strip out of his pocket, and looked at it longingly. He’d been saving the treat for a special last-day-of-tour breakfast. After another wistful sigh, he tossed it to the burveeg.
Grol caught the treat mid-air and swallowed it in one. Then he looked back at Radyn hopefully.
Radyn shook his head. “That was the only one. Besides, you should be hunting your own food. You’re supposed to be a burveeg.” He did his best to scowl, but was fairly certain the burveeg saw through it.
Grol had been Radyn’s pet for years, ever since he awoke one morning to find the cub sitting on his chest, looking down at him expectantly. Grol hadn’t left Radyn’s side since. Only now, when Grol stood on all fours, he came up to Radyn’s stomach.
As far as he knew, Grol was the only tame burveeg in existence, this exotic rarity being the only reason Uric had let Radyn keep him. It was good for the show. Grol might have had the gentlest of natures, but he still sported the dagger-like claws and teeth that earned the rest of his kind their fearsome reputation.
Grol lifted himself off his rump and padded over to where Radyn was sitting, nosing his snout under Radyn’s hand to procure a pat.
“What do you think, boy?” Radyn asked, scratching Grol through his long brown fur. “You must be getting tired of carnival life also. It can’t be much fun sitting around and watching me practice flips and somersaults all day.”
Grol let out a low growl, or maybe his stomach rumbled. Radyn wasn’t sure.
“Well, I’ve been thinking,” Radyn said. “When we get home this year, we could stay for a while, take a break from the company. Maybe even permanently. There’s plenty of food in Devonridge.”
Radyn took a swig from his bottle, his scratching hand falling still and slumping to his side. With his gaze fixed on the lake, he didn’t notice Grol moving away again.
“I’m just worried that we might miss everybody,” he added quietly.
That’s where Radyn started to get confused. Luckily, for the next two weeks, he didn’t have to think about it. He was going home to Devonridge and with it the fourteen nights of revelry known as Autumn Festival. Radyn couldn’t wait.
“Well, whatever happens, we’re going to have fun,” Radyn said, looking around when he realised Grol was no longer beside him. The burveeg was rolling on his back on the shore, biting at imaginary enemies. “I’ve written ahead to Cune to let him know that we’re coming. And I’m sure Odel will have some sweet jebbit-strips for us.”
At the mention of jebbit-strips, Grol sat up and looked at Radyn expectantly.
“You’ll have to wait until we get to Devonridge,” Radyn said, grinning. His gaze moved back to the water.
That was when he saw the star. He noticed it in the lake first. A flash of gold floating amongst the stars’ reflection. Radyn’s head snapped skyward. High in the heavens, amongst the perfect white stars, was a golden one. And it seemed to be growing.
Or getting closer. Radyn stood and craned his neck, his gaze locked on the star. He closed one eye and lifted his bottle towards the sky, using it as a scale. The star was definitely growing. Or falling, rapidly. He looked over to see if Grol had noticed, but the burveeg was again rolling about on the lakeside.
Radyn turned back to the sky and gasped. The star’s size had doubled. And it was coming straight for him. It was right above the clouds now, blazing through the heavens like a plummeting sun, a golden tail streaking in its wake. He could hear a faint roar, like something between a flame’s crackle and the rush of a waterfall.
The star and its watery reflection were rushing towards each other at unbelievable speed. The lake began to churn and bubble, slowly at first, then growing more agitated. Its roar became deafening. The golden star was right above them.
Radyn watched it all in stunned wonder. A little voice in his mind told him they were about to be obliterated, but he couldn’t seem to make his limbs move. He glanced at Grol. The burveeg had stopped mid-roll and was watching the sky intently. Then the star did the most astonishing thing of all.
Suddenly, all was silent. The star was completely motionless. It just hovered there, some thirty yards above. Its golden light was brilliant yet painless to gaze upon. A soothing glow that melded into the night so seamlessly it made the star’s size impossible to gauge. Below, the lake was still and breathless, like time itself had frozen.
The moment was fleeting. A terrific boom thundered through the night, shaking the world. The star burst into motion. Sideways.
It took off, firing away over the forest like a blazing arrow. An echo of power rippled in its wake, blasting Radyn back into the water.
As he sat there, the cold lake lapping about his chest, watching the star fly away, something inside Radyn stirred. He realised he didn’t want that star to get away. He wanted to catch it. He wanted to catch that golden star more than he had wanted to do anything in his whole life, and he was damned if he was going to let it escape that easily.
A second later Radyn was on his feet, sprinting into the forest. He could just make out the star through the leafy canopy, blazing across the dark sky.
He ran as fast as he could ever remember. The forest’s shadows whipped past in a blur. His wet boots squelched, dead leaves scrunching underfoot. He was dimly aware of Grol bounding along behind him.
And while that was happening, Radyn found himself thinking two quite detached and unrelated thoughts: first, it was lucky the star was heading in the direction of the caravans; and secondly, it was a good thing he had found this forest path, which he had completely missed on the way to the lake in the first place. He glanced down just in time to catch a road sign whisk by, its arrow pointing back to the shoreline, its neat little words announcing: Tibble Lake.
Radyn’s gaze snapped back to the sky. He caught glimpses of golden light through the branches and leaves. Unbelievably, he was keeping up with the star, despite its velocity. He began to think he might even catch it.
Light was shining through the trunks ahead: the forest road. He could see where the trees ended. Radyn burst from the forest. And froze.
For a moment he just stood there, gaping, his mind grappling with the implications of what he saw. The star had vanished, completely. But that wasn’t the only thing that had disappeared.
So had nighttime. It was suddenly day. The sky beamed a clear and unbroken blue. Daylight stung Radyn’s eyes, which only moments before had looked up at the starry heavens. The moon had departed, replaced by the sun.
Radyn wiped a palm across his chest then felt his arm. His clothes were completely dry. He shielded his eyes, took another glance at the sun, and shivered. It was more than just daytime.
It was the afternoon.
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