A coming storm darkened the Valley. Gray clouds smothered the daylight, and eastward, a trio of mountains blocked the rising sun. It was the first day of winter.
Wind whipped the river Carys into a slow churn. Upon its waters a ferry with no sails, no oars, and no name glided against the current. It moved easily, as though the surface was ice. A lantern hung from the bowsprit, whose flame did as little to light as it did to warm. The ferryman stood with one boot propped up on the bow. In his calloused hands he held a mandolin, which he played expertly. The wordless, melancholic hymn rose into the air and hung there like a fog.
Behind him, his lone passenger sat huddled in cloak and scarf. A flurry of snowy hair flared out from her hood, and she hunched inward, hands clasped not in prayer, but in guarding. The air was cold, and though the Valley was her home, she was as far from her little house as she’d ever been, and there was further still to go. But she wasn’t afraid. She’d chosen to come here.
Her name was Mayfly, and her mama was sick. She was going to fix it.
She opened her hands, shielded from the wind by her cloak. There, curled up in her palms like a sleeping child was a flower. The metallic, silvery-white color of its petals was withered, their silken texture ruined with wrinkles. Its stem, once a deep, lush onyx, was now dun and split like a chapped lip.
It was called a moonbloom, and it had sat on mama’s windowsill longer than Mayfly had been alive, stoically weathering the meanest winters and the driest summers. A week ago it began to wilt, and mama's health along with it. She lost her voice, she slept long and woke late, and what hours she did leave her bed she spent in her chair, staring emptily through the window. She had no fever, or chills, nor did she seem to be in pain, but Mayfly knew she was hurting nonetheless.
The moonbloom’s death had done this, so, it stood to reason in Mayfly’s mind that another moonbloom would undo it. The issue was that they didn’t grow in the Valley. In fact, she had no idea where they grew, or how mama had gotten hers in the first place—but that was okay. Mama had always told her that there was no shame in asking for help, so that’s what she did.
Ealdwin the ferryman knew where the moonblooms grew. He was a friend of mama’s; he’d always treated Mayfly well, and the cats adored him, even Bounce, who was still a kit and thought he was much larger than he really was. Ealdwin had run the ferry as long as anyone could remember. People said he’d ridden the Carys further down the Valley’s infinite west than anyone else had ever gone.
Closing her hands tight again, Mayfly got up and made for the bow. Ealdwin was quite tall, as tall as mama, but when she came up beside him he seemed to know it anyway. His song didn’t falter.
“Not much farther now, May. You just sit tight.”
“That’s okay,” she said, leaning onto the railing. “Actually, I was wondering if you could tell me about where I’m going.”
“Just up to the eastern cap.”
“No, I mean after that. You haven't told me what it’s like. I don’t even know what it’s called.”
“Ah,” he said, like he’d be caught out. “It’s called Gen. It’s...very big.”
“Bigger than the Valley?”
His head bobbed uncertainly. “Not really. It’s vast and varied, but it isn’t endless. Walk long enough and you’ll hit an ocean, and across those are other lands that are just as vast, and varied, and end all the same. Gen keeps to itself, though. Better for everyone that way.”
“Is that where mama’s from?”
“Hm,” he glanced her way, a flash of bright blue eyes. “What makes you say that?”
She shrugged. “No one talks about where the settlers came from. Was it your home, too?”
The melody of Ealdwin’s song slowed, and Mayfly couldn’t tell if he’d fumbled the tempo, or if it was a mirror of his thoughts. Eventually he picked it back up again. “Yes,” he said. “Gen was our home. It’s not a secret, it’s just not worth mentioning.”
“But could you? Mention it, I mean. Just a little?”
He nodded. “Dark.”
“Dark and terrible.” She sighed and let her head loll back. “I think I get why none of your songs have words now, El.”
“Well, it’s been many years, my memory isn’t what it used to be.”
That was a fib. Ealdwin knew a thousand stories and songs, and he remembered everyone’s names, even people he only met once—and their birthdays. It was true that he was old, but he was old in the way all of the settlers were, which was to say, there was no real way to tell short of asking, and asking was rude. Ealdwin had thick, brushed-back hair and a short beard, all of it peppered with gray, but as far as anyone knew he’d had that when he came to the Valley. Whenever that was.
“So what do you remember?”
“How to get there,” he said, and even in the glum she saw him smirk. He was gaming with her, and she didn’t know why, but she’d been around Ealdwin long enough to know that the best answer was to play. Parry and riposte.
Before she could strike, however, thunder rumbled overhead, and the winds quickened from whistling breezes to frustrated gusts. The boat shook suddenly and sharply enough that Mayfly nearly staggered over. The current hastened, the water frothed and turned choppy, and beneath the rushing sounds was a distant, ceaseless roaring.
Ealdwin stopped strumming, and the boat came to a halt in the middle of the river as if anchored. He handed the mandolin down to her.
“Don’t drop that,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
He brought his hands up to his sides with a deep breath, and then pushed them forward. The ferry rattled, the water splashed up in protest, but as his arms extended and he exhaled, they began to glide onward once more. She’d never seen him move things without his mandolin before, but he seemed to do it with even more ease than usual.
Before them, the mountain triplets of the eastern range rose higher than either of its siblings to the north and south. As they drew closer to it, the Carys narrowed drastically, and the woods became packed together like a dense forest. The trees standing along the banks grew larger and crooked. They hung far above and over the water, their branches sprawling, their canopies intertwined. What little light remained was choked into shadows, pierced only by the bowsprit lamp. The ferry moved in an evening darkness.
Mayfly could hardly see, but Ealdwin was undeterred. The roaring grew closer and louder, and though she could tell immediately that it wasn’t an animal, it took her a long time to make a real guess.
“Is that a…waterfall?” she asked, raising her voice just to be heard.
“Get ready to drop the anchor.” He pointed to a lever on the far side of the boat, and Mayfly scurried over.
Closer and closer, the canopy began to break, but the light was still scant. The valley tapered in until it was no wider than the bulwark trio of mountains. She could make out the colossal form of the one before them, its head buried in the clouds, its rocky face dark and impenetrable. Water ran down from the peak, or from unseen wounds in its body, gathering in a torrent that fell directly into the heart of the Carys.
“Anchor!” He shouted, and even then she could barely hear him over the waterfall.
Cradling the dead flower in one hand, Mayfly threw the lever. The anchor loosed and sank into the water. After a few moments, Ealdwin lowered his arms. The ferry jerked, but stayed put, and it was only then that Mayfly noticed the current wasn’t hitting them, even so close to the waterfall’s base.
Thunder boomed again. She felt rain, and hid the mandolin away beneath the seats. At the bow, Ealdwin stepped overboard, directly into the water.
Or rather, onto it.
Mayfly scrambled to the railing, panicked but also eager—she’d seen him light fires with his eyes and halt raindrops in the air, but never stand on water. Unfortunately, squinting at his feet, she saw he wasn’t standing on it at all. An inch or so beneath the surface was a narrow platform of rock that ran all the way up to the mountain, quelling the current.
Ealdwin gave her an expectant look in lieu of yelling again, and, with all the caution her cats gave a full bathtub, she stepped off the ferry and onto the rock. He nodded, smiled, then took the lantern from the bowsprit and headed for the waterfall. She followed him closely, even held onto the back of his robes.
When they reached the base, he took another deep breath and brought his hands up again. This time, rather than push them forward, he threw them out like he was opening a curtain. With an angry sound, the waterfall cleaved in two, revealing the maw of a cave hidden behind it.
He nodded her forward, and though she was hesitant to part with him, she let go and hurried—as best she could hurry on slick stone—until she was past the water. He followed, his steps slow, a look of clear focus on his face. When he was through as well, he dropped his arms, and the torrent converged behind them. Darkness fell, they stood together in the shallow pool of lantern light.
“This is the way to Gen?” she asked. It had grown oddly quiet, and her voice echoed in the unseen vastness of the cave.
“Not entirely,” Ealdwin said. “But I think it’s better I just show you. Stay close, it’ll be dark for a ways.”
He started onward, and Mayfly stuck to him. She couldn’t see an inch beyond what the lantern granted, but Ealdwin walked with certainty. It seemed that, however many untold years it had been since the settlers came to the Valley, he still remembered the way.
In her hand, the
withered moonbloom caught the light. She looked down at the dead glint
of its petals, and smiled. Somehow, she was sure things would be okay.