Findol and Coanh sat on the cliff, their feet dangling over the edge. The sun was barely above the mountains behind them, but they had already climbed down to the caves and back. They sat resting now, sharing bread and cheese from Coanh’s mother’s goats. There was a thin layer of fog along the horizon of the sea before them.
“How does it feel to be a man?” Coanh said. Findol shook his head, smiling.
“No different than yesterday, when I was a lad. Still, the party tonight will be jolly.”
Coanh took a small jug from his pack and drank, then passed it to Findol. He also drank, and coughed. Coanh laughed.
“To your health on your birthday, my friend.”
Findol handed the jug back.
“Your father’s ale at this hour? You’ll have me drunk the whole day.”
“It’s just one sip. Da’s brew goes well with Ma’s cheese, don’t you think?”
“You’re a danger,” Findol sighed, grinning. He looked out at the sea and blinked.
“Do you see that?” he said. “Or am I drunk indeed?”
Coanh got to his feet, squinting at the horizon.
“No, I see it, too.”
A tiny black spot drifted out of the mist.
“Is it a merchant ship?” Coanh said. “The fishing boats would all be going out, not coming in.”
Findol stood up, straining to focus his eyes. Heat surged from Griel’s scale, flushing his chest. His head throbbed, and his vision seemed to leap from him, flying across the sea toward the spot. He felt himself looking down upon a ship.
It was dark and old, of a strange design. Large enough for cargo, it moved too quickly to be carrying significant weight. Though there was no wind, its weathered sails were stretched taut as though a gale drove it. Findol saw crewmen tending to their duties, and one shadowy figure stood at the prow, which pointed toward Lualor. But there was something odd about the figure. Findol could not define the shape of it. He saw no face or distinguishing features, even though he looked for them.
His sight fell back into his body with a jolt, and he stumbled. Coanh caught him and led him away from the cliff’s edge.
“We have to get home,” Findol said, breathing hard. “I have to talk to my mother right now.” Dizzy, he set off running for the village. Coanh ran after him, his pack forgotten.
“What is it? What happened to you?”
“I don’t know. It was the scale. It—it let my eyes fly over the water to see the ship up close. There’s something aboard, something… dangerous.”
“Lourlan said something escaped the Deep,” Coanh said. “You think the thing on the ship…”
Findol’s grim gaze finished Coanh’s thought.
They ran as fast as they could. When they reached the village an hour later, the ship was docked in the harbor.
“That’s impossible,” Coanh panted. “Never heard of a ship traveling so fast.”
“Not one without magic to power it, anyway,” Findol said.
They found Lourlan on the strand, helping to prepare for the midwinter solstice festivities. Her smile darkened when she saw their faces.
“The ship, Mama,” Findol said. “Who was on that ship? We have to stop them coming ashore—”
“They’ve come and gone. They were at market,” she said. “The captain was strange. He traded his ship to Kraun for supplies and a pack horse and headed toward the mountains. He’s going on a journey, he said. Now Kraun thinks that ship makes him a great trader. Why are you two so upset?”
When Findol told her, she went pale. She sat down on a rock.
“If he’s what escaped the Deep, he’s a shapeshifter,” she said. “That’s why you couldn’t see him clearly, because he has no form of his own. The people of the Deep say he’s a demon. Zaghran, they call him. We couldn’t have stopped him if we’d known.”
“What can we do?” Findol said.
“Nothing, I’m afraid. It’s best we keep this news to ourselves,” Lourlan said. “There’s no point frightening everyone now he’s gone. What you two can do is lay wood for the fires. We don’t often celebrate the solstice and a coming of age at once. People will come early.”
She was right. As soon as Findol and Coanh laid the fires, the villagers began to arrive, laden with food and drink and musical instruments. By midafternoon the aromas of roasting meat filled the salty air.
As night fell, the feast was well under way, and the ale flowed freely. The musicians took up their lutes and pipes and began playing. Findol’s friends and neighbors drank to his long and happy life, and he laughed and danced with them. Yet the thought that a demon had passed among them nagged at his heart.
At midnight there was a commotion in the surf. Findol and Lourlan heard it at the same time, and exchanging a glance, they slipped away from the revelry and went to the water.
Three tall women, their bodies covered in delicate silver scales, emerged from the sea and approached them. The tallest was adorned with shells and coral twigs. Her eyes were large, mist-colored, and she smiled at Lourlan, who knelt before her.
“My Queen,” Lourlan said. “You have traveled far to honor us.”
“I see my surface-dwelling kin too seldom,” the Queen said, and Lourlan stood. “The trouble that passed you by today brings me to you.” She turned to Findol.
“I’ve heard tell of you even in the Deep. We have mutual friends who call you ally.”
Findol touched the scale hanging from his neck, his mouth suddenly dry. He heard great wings flapping high above and looked up. A coppery shadow glided against the stars: Aurmid.
“Y-yes, my Queen,” he said. “That is my honor.”
“Then you are my ally as well, and I must ask you to do something for me, now that you’re a man.”