That’s what it looked like as I gazed at the sky. The day was cold, made even colder by standing in the shadow of the cabin, but I was too transfixed to move. I stared up at the mountain peak that rose into the air and towered over me. It towered over everything—my family’s cabin, the village of Carin below, and the whole of the valley beyond it. Sometimes I felt as though the Northern Peak towered over all of Terra.
I tipped my head as I looked at the smoke billowing from the peak. As I watched, there was a low, threatening rumble. An instant later there was a burst of flames, then a plume of ash. I jumped a little as the ground rumbled beneath my feet. These disturbances weren’t unheard of, but they weren’t usual. In my seventeen years, I’d seen the mountain angry before, but I had to wonder what had made it angry on this day.
It should be pleased—today was my brother’s birthday. Today, Tamsen turned eighteen and would be joining my father in the guarding of the mountain.
All my life I’d been told it was an honor to be a guardian of the mountain. It was a tradition my family had been carrying for generations—according to my father. But sometimes when I looked at him, I wondered if he was right. He seemed to wear the honor like a set of heavy chains, as if the tradition compressed him smaller and smaller every year. Despite what he had always told Tamsen and me, I wondered if it was less of an honor and more of a burden. This was hard not to wonder when I saw the weariness in my father’s eyes. There was a look of exhaustion and worry that grew more prominent every year.
I gave my head a little shake and turned away from the mountain. I didn’t like to see the fire—seeing the mountain angry usually meant earthquakes or storms, and I was hoping for a fair day.
I tucked my roughly woven basket under my arm and started down the mountain. As I walked, I shot a glance over my shoulder. My father had left the cabin in the early morning as usual, and I was hoping he wasn’t nearby, so he wouldn’t see me heading out. I especially didn’t want him to see that I was taking the river path into the valley.
It was a slightly more dangerous path than the one that wound down the center of the mountain, but I had a very good reason for taking it. It was Tamsen’s birthday, and I was determined to find the biggest, most delicious ice berries for a treat. Tamsen loved the tart berries that ripened in the ice, but the ones that grew near us were always small and nearly tasteless. My father wasn’t big on celebrations, so I didn’t expect he had planned anything for Tamsen, and I wanted to make sure my brother had something to look forward to today.
As I wound my way down the river path, I gave myself a little talking to. The ice berries were better along the river, but I knew the very best berries grew elsewhere. I stopped on the path for a moment, considering my options. There was a rumble from the Northern Peak behind me, but I didn’t look at it. I barely noticed. I was too busy convincing myself to do something I knew I probably shouldn’t.
The ice berries grew in a part of the valley I wasn’t allowed to go. Not just not allowed, I was strictly forbidden to enter the Shadow Veil.
Squinting into the weak sunlight, I could see the Shadow Veil up ahead. It was huge—the largest region on the mountain. It was—as it always was these days—shrouded in mist that seemed to come from the Veil itself. The trees of the forest were gnarled and ancient. I’d heard people say that the trees themselves whispered. But the trees weren’t what you had to be afraid of in the Shadow Veil. There were other dangers worse than conversational trees.
My heart thudded as I looked into the darkness of the Veil. I shouldn’t go in. I should turn back. I knew Tamsen would be happy with whatever berries I gave him.
But I didn’t turn. Today was my brother’s birthday—the only eighteenth birthday he would ever have, and he deserved the best.
I took a step forward. Going into the Shadow Veil was a risk, but it was one I was willing to take for Tamsen.