Markel pulls the blanket around him tighter, hoping the fire will warm the space up soon enough when Lucas throws a few more logs on. They both glance out the window to the sound of the wind steadily picking up outside.
“Gonna be another cold one,” Markel says, huddling more under the blanket.
Lucas shrugs. “Maybe.”
Markel doesn’t respond to that, just focuses his attention on the hand-held his been playing for the last half hour. It’s getting later and technically he’s supposed to be in bed but Doyle said that he wanted to show him something and so he’s up, waiting.
“Psst,” Doyle calls from the doorway and both boys jump up to follow him down the stairs and past the great room where the Christmas tree still stands from the festivities.
It was a week ago and the other boys in the private school have started trickling back in.
Steadily appearing one or two at a time now that their parents aren’t obligated to spend time with them. Not that it matters to Markel. He got a nicely wrapped gift and some postcard from across seas this year and that’s the most he’s received in a long while.
With a sigh, he turns his attention to the kitchens, where Doyle stands waiting for them to hurry up. Any faster and the floorboards will creak with each step seeing how old the school is. Photos line up along the walls dating back to the early 1800’s down to an old corridor that no ones allowed to go into because of a fire that burnt the place up and they never bothered to even repair it.
How this place is still open is beyond him.
He takes a glance up the stairs noting that no one heard them, or if they have, they haven’t bothered following them down. Which could be a good thing considering Doyle is heading outside into the freezing temperatures.
Markel follows him out, being sure to shut the door behind him. His not even out there two seconds before he’s rubbing his arms and blowing into his hands to get warm. Wondering what the hell could be so important that they have to come out here tonight when it’s clear the storm is fixing to build up any minute. The thought of getting lost in the snow storm makes a stone drop in his stomach and he looks back at the house, confirming that it’s still within sight.
Technically, he could just rush back in and not have to think about whatever it is that Doyle insists on showing him.
“Come on,” Lucas says, grabbing at his sleeve to pull him along. He shakes him off but follows all the same. Knowing that he’ll never hear the end of it if he doesn’t and it’s already been a long school year.
“Why are we out here anyway?”
“Going to beg the spirits for an easy storm,” Doyle says, slowing so that they can stick together.
“Beg the who?” Markel stops, looking at the two boys, really wondering about them for the first time since meeting them.
“Beg the spirits,” Doyle says, nearly laughing at him. “It’s like you said, every year a bad storm comes in and every year someone’s got to beg the spirits for a simple storm our they’ll punish us for looking the other way.”
Markel’s laugh is cut short at how serious Doyle is. “You really believe that?”
Lucas grins. “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Markel rolls his eyes. Famous last words, he thinks as he steps past the tree line. He glances back once to notice the school is just barely visible from the forest and looks ahead. Trying to memorize what trees and rocks are in the area because something tells him he’s going to need to know these details later.
Markel picks up his pace to keep up with the two older boys until they’re so far into the woods he can’t see the edges anymore. The silence beats down on him and he looks past the trees for the owls and bats that should be flying about for their late night dinners and comes up short.
“How far we going?”
“Not much further, just to the river,” Lucas says, nodding toward a break in the trees.
They stop at the edge of the ice, staring at it like it is going to reach out and grab one of them at any moment.
“Well?” Markel looks to his companions for some kind of explanation. “What now?”
It’s been cold enough that the ice could hold all three of them as they cross but Markel takes a step back. Not wanting to take the chance. What if the ice does break? What if he falls in?
He takes a deep breath, feeling his lungs deflate as he thinks about summertime when he was knocked out of the canoe and the way the water rushed into his lungs as he screamed for help and takes another step back.
Doyle grabs his arm, squeezing it so hard there’s going to be a bruise in the morning as he pulls him forward. “Come on, just got to prove we’re up for anything, right?”
“Yeah, it’ll be quick. Promise.” Lucas gives him a reassuring smile as he grabs his other arm and pulls him forward.
All three boys step on to the river at the same time and the ice cracks beneath them. The sound echos in the still forest and Markel tries to pull away. Throwing all of his weight backward to break their grips only for their nails to bite into his skin as they hold on.
“Stop it, Markel,” Lucas says, yanking him forward. “The sooner we get this done, the sooner we get to go home.”
Markel manages to free one of his arms, taking him off guard as he swings around, twisting his other arm in an attempt to get away from Doyle who’s dragging him further onto the ice that is steadily cracking as they go.
Lucas gives up trying to grab him again and instead moves to the center of the ice where several pieces have broken apart and created a gaping hole. Lucas glances back at him and smiles as he slams his foot along the edges making the hole even bigger. Markel freezes, looking behind him to the cracks and forward to the gaping hole and realizes this isn’t going to end well.
“No,” he says, pulling so hard that Doyle’s nails scrap across his skin as he breaks free and lands hard on his backside with “hmph”
He scrambles backward, kicking at Doyle when he reaches for him again. Doyle doubles over when Markel’s foot connects with his stomach and Markel takes off. Not wasting another second to find out what exactly how this ends. All he has to do is make it back to the school, and to his bed, and there won’t be much they can do then.
He hopes anyways.
Hopes whatever spirits that are paying attention will take one of their own.
“Markel!” someone shouts, grabbing at his shirt and yanking him back. He lands hard on the ice and feels his heart skip a beat when he hears the ice crack right below him. He knows at this rate they’ll all be under the water and the thought of all that icy water filling his lungs as he claws for the surface makes his hands shake.
He elbows the person behind him, hearing another distinct grunt and crawls away. Hoping that the ice will hold until he gets to shore.
“Someone needs to face the spirits, Markel, just got to be one person.” Doyle grabs his hair, dragging him toward the hole in the ice. “Just one and we’ll be fine.”
“Screw you!” Markel tears at Doyle’s hand, trying to free himself. “Throw yourself in.”
He twists, gritting his teeth when his hair rips from his head and rushes forward and knocks Doyle toward the hole. Doyle slips, bringing Markel down with him until his face hits the ice and the world spins. His vision blurs as he tries to scramble back.
There’s a splash and a “help” as Markel grips his nose, trying to clear his vision despite the pain and confusion. Lucas grabs at his shirt, yanking him up and away from the water.
Markel tries to shake him off when he hears, “stop, stop. Enough. The spirits got what they wanted.”
Markel falls to the ground, landing on soft snow as he looks around. Doyle’s arm flails in the water, gripping at the ice that is doing nothing but chipping away, and Markel rests his head between his legs to catch his breath despite everything.
“Why?” he asks, shaking Luca’s hand off when the boy reaches out to comfort him.
“They just need their payment,” Lucas says, taking a step away. “They don’t care who pays it.”
Markel shakes his head, squeezing his eyes shut tight as he finally takes his first steady breath. “And next time?”
Lucas shrugs. “That’s a problem for next year.”
His footsteps sound in the snow as he walks away, leaving Markel to stare at the hand disappearing below the water and he stands. Falling at first as his legs give out and he takes another second to get his bearings. Biting his lip to keep from crying in pain as he stands, legs still wobbling but he manages to lean against the trees and slowly makes his way back to the school.
The kitchen door is left wide open and he doesn’t question it as he makes his way back to the common room. He leans against the banister, letting the flames thaw his freezing body out as he clenches and relaxes his fists. Staring at the claw marks on his arms and trying to hold back the tears.
“I can’t do it again,” he says to Lucas as the boy kneels in front of the fire, his hand twisting just over the flames.
“Yes, you can. You will.”
Markel voice cracks as he whispers, “no.”
“Who you talking to?”
Markel jumps, twisting around to find one of the younger kids, Adam, standing just in the dorms.
He looks to the fire, finds the space is empty, and looks up again to find Lucas just behind Adam.
He swallows the ball of fear that swells in his throat and takes another shaky breath. “No one. Come on, it’s late we should be in bed.”
“My brother’s missing, have you seen him?”
The image of Doyle’s hand disappearing below the ice rises up and he shakes his head. “No, I’m sure he’s just in the bathroom or something.”
He pushes the boy back toward the beds and ignores Lucas as he says, “next year.”
He doesn’t want to think about next year. Prays that he’s not going to be here next year.