When Nell awoke from a restless sleep on the lighthouse’s gallery, the wind was blowing straight at her, whistling in her ears like a warning. She pushed back the threadbare blanket and stood, focusing on the seam where the ocean met the sky.
There. A flicker of movement where there should be none. Nell’s instincts went sharp as knives.
The enemy had finally arrived.
Nell’s oldest memories were of sparring with Mother in the cold sea air, small hands clutching her wooden practice sword as she repeated the same combination over and over until her muscles remembered the patterns on their own. Mother would never tell her what the enemy looked like, or what his power was, but that didn’t keep Nell from growing more curious by the year.
“Is he a pirate?” Nell used to ask. “Or a giant sea serpent?”
“It’s better that you don’t know,” Mother had said. “Focus on your training, and keep your eyes on the horizon. You must be prepared, even when I am no longer here to guide you.”
“You will always be here,” Nell had said, and it wasn’t until illness claimed her mother’s life that she realized how foolish she’d been.
Now, Nell waited alone. She was born to the title of lighthouse keeper, and that meant it was her job to warn the islanders of the enemy’s approach. But something was keeping her feet rooted to the gallery. Because the enemy was getting closer, and as Nell watched, he divided from the ocean like a drop of water rising from a puddle.
The enemy had wings. He had talons.
This couldn’t be right. Nell was trained to battle sea creatures. She could swim faster than a fish and hold her breath for six whole minutes. She could throw a spear into the waves and catch a moving target. But a creature of the air? How was she to win against that? It required a different understanding of movement and speed, an agility on land that Nell did not have. Out of the water, her feet became clumsy, her balance disappearing like a memory. She was useless.
“Mother,” Nell whispered, “why didn’t you tell me?”
But there would never be an answer, so Nell rang the warning bell and grabbed her spear. Her heart raced as she ran down, down, down the spiral staircase.
There were many things Mother had never said aloud. She’d always kept her past close to her chest, the same way an octopus secrets away coppers and lost jewels. But this wasn’t the only thought bringing out a cold sweat on Nell’s skin—because if she couldn’t defeat the enemy, he would destroy her home of Greyisle. It was his destiny to try, and the lighthouse keeper’s destiny to stop him. That was Mother’s most important lesson, repeated so many times that the words rang hollow—until now. Except Nell had always thought it would be her mother facing the enemy. Nell herself was but a child, no more than twelve years old. She was smart enough to know that didn’t count for much against a powerful foe.
She tightened her grip on her spear. It was no use dwelling on her own weakness anymore. Nell couldn’t die today.
When she opened the lighthouse door, a young islander was there, clutching a basket. At the sight of Nell, the girl flinched and bowed low. Everyone on Greyisle revered the lighthouse keeper, but as Nell grew older, it began to feel excessive. She was not of noble blood or wealthy family, so why should they treat her as if she stood apart from them? Perhaps if Nell was ever able to join the islanders for their festivities and holidays, she would learn why. But Nell couldn’t leave her post except to sleep, and so her time with the islanders was limited to receiving food and goods at her doorstep. She never went hungry, and for that she was grateful. But why wouldn’t the islanders look her in the eyes?
“You are Lianne,” Nell said to the girl.
Lianne placed a basket on the ground. “My lady. A gift from my family.”
And before Nell could thank her, Lianne was running back to the village.
Nestled in the basket was an iron breastplate, exactly Nell’s size. The likeness of a great storm was etched into the metal with a patient hand. Nell brushed her fingers over the small crashing waves, the lightning that reached down from the clouds.
Nell had dreams about storms like that. In her sleeping mind, the hurricanes decimated islands and sank ships, and she always awoke with the taste of blood in her mouth. The memory made her sick to her stomach, and she almost left the armor behind. But she needed the protection, so she slid the breastplate over her head, tightening the straps as she ran down to the rocky beach.
The enemy was already there, waiting for her.
Now that Nell saw him up close, there was more to him than wings. He had a boy’s face and body, and he was more beautiful than any human Nell had ever seen.
“Who are you?” Nell said.
The boy’s pupils grew longer. “I have been waiting years to meet you.”
And he leapt at her, talons gleaming.
Nell’s training took over. She parried the blow with her spear, and there was a brief flare of confidence in her chest. Perhaps she could win this after all. But then the boy flew at her again, and though Nell blocked him, the force of his strength knocked her back. He didn’t give Nell the chance to recover; instead, he raised his hands to the sky, and a gust of wind knocked the spear from her hands. Then the boy dove at her again, and this time his talons caught her wrists, pinning her to the rocks.
I am going to die after all, Nell thought as she struggled against his grip. I’ve already failed my people. I’ve failed Mother.
The boy pulled a dagger from his belt. “Goddess, I spill your blood so that the island of Ovelier may prosper.”
Ovelier. Nell had read about it in one of her books. It was an island no larger than her own, days away by boat. But this thought was fleeting, because the boy had called her something strange.
“Goddess?” Nell said. “What are you talking about?”
The boy’s eyes flickered with uncertainty. “You are Elinor, are you not?”
Nell flinched at her given name, the same as Mother’s. “I prefer Nell, if you don’t mind.”
“Then you’re the one I seek.”
“No,” Nell said with more force. “I’m not any sort of goddess. I’m only a lighthouse keeper.”
The boy knelt, pressing the blade to her throat. His skin smelled like the sun. “You are trying to trick me. You attack Ovelier with wild storms, and you expect us to do nothing? I’ve trained for this day since I was born, and I’m not weak like my father was. Your mother’s storms frightened him, and he refused to leave our island to confront her. But that was never going to be my story. Your power is the reason I wake up, the reason I worked within an inch of my life to master my magic.”
There was a heavy pause as all of this sank in. Then, Nell burst out laughing.
“If this is all true, then perhaps you should thank me instead of kill me,” she said. “Do you have an effigy of me by your bed? To throw daggers at when you wake up in the morning?”
The boy made a low noise, and his talons dug into Nell’s skin. “You dare mock me when I have won?”
“Wait,” Nell said, her smile long gone. “I—I’m sorry. Please, you must believe me when I say I have no idea what you’re talking about. What storms do you speak of? There have been no storms since—” The words died in her throat. Because there had been storms, but only in Nell’s dreams.
As if reading her mind, the boy’s eyes dropped to her breastplate, and he sneered. “You wear the destruction like a badge. Will you admit to the attacks, or will you die a coward?”
Nell remembered the taste of blood in her mouth after every dream. Those storms couldn’t be her fault. Her dreams held no such power.
“A coward, then,” the boy growled, and blood trickled down Nell’s neck.
Nell’s skin began to buzz with fear. Water, water, water, a voice chanted in her mind, and it sounded like Mother. Somehow, Nell was sure that the feeling of the ocean was the only thing that could give her strength. So she dug her fingers into the rocks until she touched hidden rivulets of saltwater.
Immediately, the tingling on her skin subsided, and there was a low rumble beneath them. Nell would know that sound anywhere; it was what she heard when the tide caught her and sent her tumbling head over foot under the waves.
It was the sound of the ocean’s power.
The boy gasped and whipped around. Behind them, a giant wave was cresting, but Nell wasn’t surprised. After all, the ocean was doing exactly what she’d told it to do.
The boy lunged for Nell, but he was too slow, and the water swallowed them whole.
Under the surface, Nell changed. Her fingernails became pearls, her hair a glowing anemone. The skin at her neck split into gills, and webs grew between her toes. Once the pain had passed, Nell opened her eyes, and she could see the creatures of the ocean watching her. Waiting for her orders.
She opened her mouth to laugh or perhaps to cry. She was a lighthouse keeper, but she was more than that, and everyone had known it except her—from the villagers who worshipped her to this strange boy who had grown up learning to fear her, then hate her.
The boy. Nell raised her spear, eyes searching the grey water for him. But he was no threat to her now. A shark had him by the arm, and the boy’s eyes held none of the fire they’d had on the beach. Now, he struggled to free himself before he drowned.
Leave him to me, Nell thought, and the shark let him go. She opened her hand, and a current carried them to the surface.
When they were back on the beach, the boy vomited. His wings were limp, and golden blood poured from the bite on his arm.
“What is your name?” Nell asked, standing before him.
“Ove,” he gasped, “like my father.”
“Ove,” Nell repeated. “Are there others like you and me?”
Ove gritted his teeth. “Of course. Why do you ask silly questions?”
Because Mother kept many secrets. Because she never saw fit to teach me about the world beyond my island, or about myself.
Ove sat back on his haunches, still gasping for breath. “I—I accept defeat. Don’t make me wait.” He held his head high, ready to meet his death.
Nell’s eyes fell to the wound on his arm, and a strange instinct made her kneel in front of him and place her hand over it. There was static when they touched, and moments later, the wound was gone.
Ove stared at her like one might stare at a monster, or perhaps at a falling star about to crash at one’s feet.
“Return to your island,” Nell said. “Tell them there will be no more storms on one condition.”
Ove’s brow furrowed. “What condition?”
“Each week, you will meet me here, and you will teach me about yourself and the other gods.”
Ove scoffed. “Your ignorance is no business of mine. Get your islanders to teach you.”
“I cannot expect the people who never leave our island to know these things, so I’m asking you. Will you help me?”
The boy’s eyes never left her face as he contemplated this. When he spoke, there was still a hint of gravel to his voice. “But we are enemies.”
“Our parents were,” Nell said. “But it’s our turn now. Perhaps that should change.”