Greff stood on a hill overlooking the wide, muddy river and watched the men down at the dock loading the low-floating boat. The dark water rippled with each heavy bag that was dropped onto the barge then dragged by thick armed boatmen to the center of the flat deck. The sacks piled up next to crates of cider and boxes of vegetables, the month’s outpouring from the village was ready for it’s journey down the river and to the market in Ball.
He had never been to Ball but his Uncle had gone a year or two back and returned with various goods imported from up and down the river and even across the endless plains that stretched off to the west. He’d brought Greff a fine pair of boots with soft leather soles.
As a special gift for his 16th birthday, Uncle had also brought him a special gift; a small artifact from the “before time”. Now he fingered the square talisman that hung around his neck as he thought about sailing down the river on his own adventure.
“What you doing, Greff?” asked a brash voice from behind him.
He sighed, annoyed that he’d been found and his privacy intruded upon. Greff brushed a strand of unruly brown hair back to reveal his darkly blue eyes that slid coolly over Star’s face. “What do you want, Star?”
She plopped down next to him and started picking at the grass. Two years younger than him, she stood a hand taller. She lived with her folks on a small farm next to Greff’s Uncle and, though he tried to avoid her, she seemed to always track him down whenever he came into town.
In his private ruminations, he didn’t mind her company but she made him nervous and he was always afraid that she’d catch him looking at her out of the corner of his eye.
“Just waiting for my dad to finish his business before we head back home. Saw you sitting up here and I thought ‘I wonder what old Greff is doing way up there?’ so I came up to see.”
He looked over at her, lean brown arms wrapped around her knees. She absently waved away a fly and gave him a shy smile though her brown eyes were unabashedly locked on him. Greff quickly turned his head and concentrated on the activity at the dock, ignoring the grass she threw at him.
“You ain’t going to talk to me?” she pouted.
“I’m just wishing I could get aboard that boat and go down to Ball. Them River Rats are pretty lucky.”
“Lucky? Hell, they can’t set foot on land or they’ll turn to stone,” she scoffed.
“Now, where’d you hear something like that?”
“Rix at school said so.” She rolled over, laying back on the grass watching the few stringy clouds. “He and I went walking after school and he said his brother saw a Rat get knocked onto the ground and he stiffened up instantly.”
Greff stood quickly, “Rix and his brother are both pretty dumb, aren’t they?”
“Oh, I don’t know, he’s awfully cute,” she searched Greff’s face for any flicker of jealousy but he’d turned his back, staring out at the river.
“Sounds just dumb to me.”
“Well, what do you know about them, then?”
He sat back down, consciously not looking at her laying next to him. “Well, the River Rats control the river and everything that happens on it. They don’t answer to anyone and they go anywhere they want. All they ask from us is that we give them food, medicine and don’t bother them.” He tried to recall the history Uncle had passed down to him. “When the river towns were battling and raiding and fighting, it was the Rats that stopped it. Gave us all a safe way to trade and cooperate.”
Star propped herself up on her elbows. “Damn, Greff, you sure are smart.”
He felt himself flush and hid his face.
“You ever thought about joining them?” she asked
“You can’t join them. The only way to be a River Rat is be born one. They won’t take one of us, except as a passenger.” He was quiet for a moment, thinking about the boats and the farm and his Uncle. “Would you join up with them, if you could?”
She rolled over and sat up on her knees, peering down at the dock. “If you did, I would.”
He flushed again. “I’m thinking of walking to Ball.”
“That’s a long trip. My Dad went once when he was young, rode a horse, and it took him four days.” Star thought about Greff tracking through the rough country and wondered if he’d ever come back. “If you do go,” she said, looking at his profile, “let me come with you.”
“Why would I want you tagging along?” he asked scornfully.
“’Cause you wouldn’t survive two days without me watching your back,” she countered.
“Well,” he started thoughtfully, “don’t say that unless you mean it. If I do go, I’ll be expecting you to be ready.”
She didn’t say anything, her mind was already packing a sack for the journey. They sat on the hill, silently thinking about world beyond their village. Greff was itching to get out and Star was itching to follow him. For now, their journey was mental and was soon broken as the River Rat boat had finished loading and began to push it’s way back into the flow of the river.
Greff’s Uncle waved up towards him, something long, wrapped in dirty cotton in one hand, and he and Star began the trek back down the hill and to the village. Star kept angling closer to him as they stumbled over the rough ground but Greff would speed up or step away, maintaining a safe distance between them. Star sped off with a wave when they reached the bottom of the hill and Greff said nothing as he climbed aboard his Uncle’s wagon, his eyes focused on the mysterious objects tucked in the back of the wagon.