Shadows drifted over the table, flickering on and off with the fire. The mead warmed Alston down to his toes. It was cold outside. Alston looked across the table at his friend.
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Alston said. “I may be brand new here too, but I’ve learned about it before.”
Quinn was wearing his calculating face. Calculating and stubborn.
“It has been done before, though?” Quinn asked.
Alston nodded gravely. “Many times. Which makes it harder than ever before.”
“What are you two talking about?” Alston looked up at the extra tall girl standing over them: Krea. Her long brown hair was swept behind her ear, and her eyes reflected the firelight.
“You don’t want to know,” Quinn said.
Krea stuck her tongue out. “You can’t just get rid of a friend like that. And how do you know I don’t want to know? What’s up?”
“The Heims Hagr,” Alston said.
Krea shivered. “Not another one!” she said. “Alston, surely you of all people know better.”
“Not me,” Alston said, glancing significantly at Quinn.
“Quinn, no,” Krea said firmly. “You’re too smart for that.”
“And that’s what I’ve been trying to tell him,” Alston
“Listen, the Heims Hagr is stupid and barbaric. All the other dark traditions have faded. This one should too.”
“What’s wrong with the Hagr?” said a voice from the bar. The kids looked around. A lanky man with a young face and slicked back hair smiled at them. “It’s all very simple.” He spread his hands. “Mind your own business, and no one will hurt you. Try to sneak into town? On your own head.”
“But I’ve heard,” chortled a larger bald boy. “They make special accommodations for visitors.” Some of the older students at the bar began to snicker.
“Okay,” Quinn said. “That’s the other thing. No one will just straight up tell me what it is. Maybe you can enlighten me?”
“Well, flurn.” The kids stiffened at the insult. “I can tell you that.” The bald student leaned forward and took a short breath. “You’ve heard the stories of Lord Doran and the pagan clans, of course?”
The kids nodded. Who hadn’t?
“I’ll tell you what your teachers won’t,” said the bald student. “See, Doran started off by trying to befriend them. Oh, yes, participated in all the dark rituals, he did.”
“Which ones?” Quinn asked.
“All of them, didn’t he? Dear me, yes. The dark rites, the gatherings. Should I describe them for him?” Even the smirking university students shook their heads. “Fine. Point is, they were cruel. But they were also in touch.”
“With what?” Quinn said shortly.
“The seasons,” bald guy answered. “The rhythms of life. The solstices, the storms and hail, and some say death as well. Oh, yes, very dark they were. But they were wise. They knew things.” Bald guy lingered on this point, letting the silence congeal around them as he took a long noisy drink of liquor.
“Well, I’ve heard it differently,” Alston spoke up. Everyone turned to look at him. Bald guy chuckled.
“’Course you have. Quite right too. Wash it all up. Clean it for the sensitive ears.” Alston thought he caught the world “flurn” a couple times in the tavern murmur. “But if you want to know life,” bald guy said, “you’ll stop your mouth and listen.”
Alston felt Quinn move closer to him. Quinn’s fist was clenched, and his grey eyes were cold. But when Alston moved to speak again Quinn put a hand on his arm. “Listen first,” he whispered. Alston nodded and looked back at the bald student.
“Of course, the flurn is right,” said bald guy. Quinn growled low in his throat, and Alston felt a surge of gratitude for his friend. “Lord Doran…refined his views somewhat,” the older students chuckled. “Finally, he turned on the pagan magicians. He stamped them out. But the customs, the ways natural to the earth held on like morning mist, until very gradually, they faded. Only a very few remain. You see,” said bald guy standing up and moving towards the children’s table. “Some of the old ways found a home even in the conquerors. And the Winter Trail, the Heims Hagr, is the oldest of them all. Even the pious, early students at Horhund University knew the value of the ritual.”
“And the ritual?” Krea said. “The thing you were supposed to be explaining all this time?”
“Just a night of celebration,” said slicked-back-hair. “For the university students. The whole town, for that one night, is ours. And if underschool students are caught…”
“Anywhere in town,” said a different student.
“Anywhere,” said another. “Outside of the Bolingress Academy or Verdue Fountain . . . .”
“University students have a free hand to deal with them,” finished bald guy.
“Why would underschool students want to mess with your ‘celebrations’?” Alston asked.
“Don’t know, do I?” said bald guy. “But they do. Have their own little tradition. If one of them can get all the way across town to old Verdue Fountain on the night of the Heims Hagr, they become famous.”
“In the Academy,” said slicked back hair. “If you call that famous.”
“When you said university students have a free hand to deal with them,” Quinn began.
“Up to and including . . . death,” said Alston distractedly.
Bald guy bent down and looked at the kids. His breath smelled like bad yeast. “I look forward to seeing you then,” he said.
“And that,” said Krea pushing away from bald guy and standing up. “Is why it’s a bad tradition.”
* * *
“I can’t believe the bartender just stood there and let that ruffian harass us,” Krea said. “The tavern master would never have allowed it.”
“We did ask the question,” Quinn said.
“No, you did,” Krea shot back.
“I was curious.” Quinn said.
“You have a lot to learn, that’s all I’ll say.” Krea said. “Some people you don’t speak with. I know Alston will agree with me on that.”
Alston saw them looking at him, but they seemed distant. He felt like the blood was draining from his head.
“What’s a rider doing in the snow at this time of night?” flashed through his head. His mother opened the cottage door . . .
“Alston?” Quinn and Krea were looking at him, concerned. Alston shook his head.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” Quinn pressed. Krea tried to shush him.
“I have reasons not to like the Hagr,” Alston said.
“What rea . . .”
Krea stepped on Quinn’s foot, and he stopped talking.
“My cousin.” Alston said. “My cousin died here, and no one ever really found out what happened. You might not know this,” Alston said, “But I almost didn’t come to Bolingress Academy. I thought I couldn’t stand the memories.”
Quinn said nothing. His stare asked his question for him.
“And I think I may have been right,”
* * *
Alston stood in a dark room, dimly lit by a candle. A candle he could not see. He looked around the open, wood floor. Quinn’s bed was there now. Empty. Alston felt the panic rising in his chest. He shuffled down the academy stairs as silently as possible. The wood never creaked.
Alston was standing in a long stone hallway—unlike anything in the Academy. The grey bricks were pitted and textured except in the very center. The middle of the bricks were smooth enough for names—written in black ink.
Names everywhere. And the more Alston looked the more names he saw. On the floor, on the walls, crawling like spiders to the bricks on the ceiling above.
“You know what these are,” said a voice. Bald guy stood smirking.
“No,” Alston said.
“Names,” said bald guy. “Names of the students who die.”
As Alston looked more closely he saw his cousin’s name on the list, turning red.
“Quinn’s name will be there too,” bald guy taunted.
“No it won’t!” Alson said. “He won’t do it.”
Bald guy began to cackle. “What’s a rider doing in the snow this time of night?” he mimicked.
“Stop it!” But now the hall was filled with university students all walking toward Alston.
“Quinn is going to do it,” one student said.
“The ancients were dark, but they knew things,” said another.
“Once Quinn starts,” said Bald Guy. “No one stops him.”
And Alston knew it was true.
He awoke with a jerk. Alston was sweating. He pushed off his covers, but the cold stabbed him like an icy knife. He looked over at Quinn, sleeping soundly. And as suddenly as waking up, he knew what he had to do.